Dozens of cyclists wearing safety gear ride one after the other along the margin of Chennai’s East Coast Road. Even as they ride along a scenic route with the ocean on one side, cyclists say there is always an element of fear that hangs over them.
From students to retirees, Chennai has a vibrant community of cycling enthusiasts. And while for most, it’s a hobby, they say the infrastructure required to convert a weekend ride into an everyday means of transportation is far from adequate.
The cycling community in Chennai is around 6,000 persons strong, says Felix John, the Bicycle Mayor of the city. ‘Bicycle Mayor’ is a global initiative by the Netherlands-based social enterprise BYCS, which focuses on encouraging cycling around the world.
“There are over 10 bicycling groups in the city and includes heritage enthusiasts, hobbyists, fitness enthusiasts and regular commuters,” he adds. Around 2008-09, some cycling hobbyists began using the East Coast Road stretch starting from Thiruvanmiyur. However, now the city has many independent cycling groups that organise events and trips regularly within and outside the city.
The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) has attempted to do its bit to promote sustainable transportation in the city, introducing Smart Bikes in Chennai as a part of the Smart City initiative recently. The GCC set up bicycle sheds in major points across the city, where people can pick these cycles up and use it to commute. But as the bikes can be unlocked by using a mobile app and need to be docked at designated docking spots in the city, the initiative’s success has been limited.
While commending the thought-process behind the initiative, Aswathy Dilip, Senior Programme Manager in charge of non-motorised transport in Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) says that this reliance on mobile apps to use the cycles makes it inaccessible to a section of the society which does not have the apps or the required KYC to make the payments.
“We generally use fitness as a peg to get people to give cycling a try because it is not practical to tell them to do it as a main mode of commute. However, over time, many of them realise the benefits and stick to cycling,” Felix explains, adding that there are many who also give up cycling altogether after trying it for a few days. “The road scares a lot of us,” he points out, referring to the abject disregard for cyclists by other road users in the city.
Lack of respect towards cyclists
Pointing out that those who cycle are often at the mercy of car drivers, Felix, who is also a part of We are Chennai Cycling Group (WCCG), a Chennai-based cyclists group, admits that he too did not respect cyclists on the road. “When I was a car driver, I generally tended to not give way to cyclists on the road. Or I used to overtake him or overpower him in some way or the other,” he says. Felix, however, adds that taking up cycling made him realise the dangers cyclists face on the road.
Ramanujar Moulana, 48, founder of Cycling Yogis, says that this is indeed one of the biggest challenges faced by cyclists in Chennai. “We need a change in attitude among each and everyone using the road and that is ‘respect to one and all who use the road’,” he says.
Forty-year-old Prijit Sreedharan also points to the pot-hole ridden roads, which are very often encroached upon and lack clear demarcation to explain why Chennai isn’t cyclist-friendly. “We therefore try to avoid city roads and hit the highways during our cycling time. But then if we have to think of using bicycles as a mainstream mode of transport, there must be an infrastructure to support it,” he says. Prijit Sreedharan cycles around 60 kms one-way to his workplace every day and is a part of a city-based cycling group ‘Avadi CyRuns’ which has around 250 cycling enthusiasts.
Referring to the dedicated cycle lanes in select roads in Chennai, Felix says that despite the effort, other road users do not respect it and encroach the track. “Infrastructure-wise, even though we have dedicated cycle tracks on a few roads, these are killed by lack of maintenance. For example, after marking the bicycle lane, the Corporation will give permission to someone to dig that portion up to lay pipes/cables. This is then covered up by concrete which spoils the track itself.”
‘Chennai city needs vision’
Cycling groups across Chennai echo a similar demand - the need for planned development of the city.
“The city is designed for the four-wheelers to move freely. Now to accommodate cyclists, we need to have a mode-sharing system, within the roads and other infrastructure. Mode sharing means that the road is made user-friendly to all categories of commuters. There has to be a policy change to accommodate all kinds of road users,” says Felix adding that the expansion of the city in terms of infrastructure has been illogical so far.
Aswathy Dilip of ITDP, says that cycling culture in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands grew due to a vision in support of the cause by the city planning authorities. “Cities in Denmark and the Netherlands were brought back into cycling by their governments which dedicated infrastructure and planned cities around cycling. The Dutch and Danish cities have come to this level of cycling only because they had a long-term vision that they want to promote cycling as against other modes of transport. They worked towards achieving this, over the years,” she says.
Dedicated lane for cycling
Another long-term demand of cyclists across the city has been a dedicated, demarcated lane for cyclists on the roads. A few roads in Chennai at present have cycle lanes which are marked using paint. However, more often than not, due to absence of hard demarcation using physical barricades, these lanes end up being encroached by other motorists. Felix John urges authorities to look into this at the earliest.
“In government schools, they have been giving free cycles to the students. They should make sure that their school zones are protected and safe for children to ride around the city since the city is not only for adults. It is for babies, kids and teens also. At least in the 2-km radius around the school, the corporation can do a pilot project by putting up dedicated bicycle lanes and see how things go,” he suggests.
Aswathy Dilip, in fact, says that it is possible for the Corporation to provide bicycle lanes in all roads which are 24 metres or more in width. She also points out that main roads can be made cycle-friendly by having bicycle lanes, and speed restrictions can be imposed in inner streets as well.
“Cars and motorcycles tend to speed in the inner roads. The solution is to first earmark a couple of roads as thoroughfare, where the motor vehicles can ply but regulate and enforce speed limits on inner streets so that it becomes pedestrian and cycle-friendly. As long as the speed is kept at around 15 kmph, you don't need a separate cycle track on that street. Also, installing physical barriers like bollards will help greatly in promoting cycling,” she explains.
Ramanujar, meanwhile, suggests that the Corporation can join hands with cycling groups and NGOs to promote cycling among the people. “The Corporation can make optimal utilization of existing bicycle tracks by joining hands with various cycling groups and curating weekend activities,” he says, adding that it's time that Corporation and like-minded institutions promote initiatives like creating bicycle lanes in the city. “We at Cycling Yogis have created numerous bicycle trails in the city. If the Corporation join hands with city-based interest groups, it will provide an opportunity for growth of eco-tourism and awareness about the rich heritage of the city,” he adds.
We are working on it: Corporation
Speaking to TNM on cycling in Chennai, G Prakash, Commissioner of Greater Chennai Corporation says that the authority is working on developing cycling tracks in the city.
“This is a part of our Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust’s (CRRT) river restoration project. Along the banks of the rivers Cooum and Adyar, a natural embankment is going to be created in which we are planning for a jungle track which can also be used for bicycles. It will be like a nature trail as well. We will soon be calling for tenders for this project,” he says.
The track which will come up along Cooum river will be around 18 kms in length and the one along Adyar river will be around 24 kms, he points out.
Taking note of the requests of the cycling community to create dedicated cycling lanes around the city, Prakash says that it is difficult to implement in bustling areas of the city. “These areas are already limited by carriageways and the tremendous increase in vehicles every year. So you can't sacrifice the existing space for something else because that will only increase the congestion,” he says.
Prakash, however, assures that the city authorities will look into the idea of developing bicycle zones around schools to promote the habit among children. “It all depends on the location. Schools generally don't exist in isolation but will be near main roads or busy streets. Then the question comes how to insert a cycling track in this narrow stretch, that would be a challenge. Of course it is a good idea and we will analyse this and see how we can implement it. If it was in a planned area, then it can easily be implemented. We will analyse it for sure and can have location-specific plan,” he says.
Pointing out that this issue of need for infrastructure and growth of bicycle users is like a typical chicken and egg story, Aswathy says, “When there are more cyclists on the road to voice out their concerns, the government will be willing to listen. But more cyclists will come onto the road, only if the infrastructure and policy encourages it. Hence these are things that we do simultaneously.”
With the conversation around a greener future is becoming louder by the day, cyclists hope that in due time, the culture of using bicycles as a main mode of transport in Chennai will be back, as it once was decades ago.