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Could the pandemic help rethink Bengaluru’s traffic issues?

By investing in cycling infrastructure now, the city with one of the most severe traffic congestions in the world, can recover from the lockdown more sustainably and build more resilience.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Bengaluru could have been at par with other major Indian cities, but quick and decisive actions by the government have helped stem that risk. As the city crawls back to normalcy and people look at safer mobility options, Bengaluru now faces the risk of another kind—a resurgence in traffic congestion more severe than before.

Over the last two decades, a dramatic rise in personal motor vehicle ownership has made the city notoriously infamous for its overwhelming traffic —this year alone, a TomTom study found that Bengaluru had the most severe traffic congestions in the world, with commuters spending an additional 10 days and three hours stuck in traffic each year.

The COVID-19 lockdown, which began in March, inadvertently revealed an opportunity for the city to rethink its normal. After the lockdown eases, commuters are likely to use personal vehicles, sending traffic congestion levels soaring more than the city has experienced before—and increasing the already high levels of pollution, congestion, and wasted productivity. Before the old normal takes over, the city must implement some course corrections. While Bengaluru is maximizing its efforts to provide safe public transport, other modes of transport will need to be explored to prevent further gridlock.

Developing Bengaluru’s own cycling culture

This might, in fact, be the most pertinent time to see how mobility can be redefined in Bengaluru with cycling. During the pandemic, cycles have proven an effective and resilient mode of transport for many across the globe, in particular for front-line workers, and essential supply and service providers. In Bengaluru as well, it has served to be the mode of choice for a few volunteer groups providing essential supplies to the aged.

Amongst cities in India, Bengaluru is considered as being cycling-friendly, with year-round pleasant temperatures and even terrains. One-way commuting distances in the city average around 11 km, which can be viable for using cycles. However, with the absence of safe and efficient cycling infrastructure, the average number of daily trips serviced by bicycle operators in Bengaluru has been almost half of other global cities. In 2015, Bengaluru’s cycling share was 0.7%—compared with Asian cities in 2017 such as Ho Chi Minh City, which had recorded a 19% cycling share, or Tokyo, with 12%.

Cities across the world have used lockdowns to reset and reimagine their workings, paving the way for cities like Bengaluru
Cities across the world have used lockdowns to reset and reimagine their workings, paving the way for cities like Bengaluru. Photo by Modi Kumar/flickr

Cycling matters in the new normal

According to a TERI report, there are three main reasons behind the declining use of cycles in urban areas: lack of safe cycling conditions in cities; a lack of schemes to promote cycle use, such as bicycle sharing; and social perceptions about cycling and a preference for motorized personal transport over cycles. To boost cycling use, there are three primary issues that need to be addressed by the city government, with citizens groups and entrepreneurs playing key roles in enabling these:

  1. Ensuring safe segregated spaces for cyclists: Bengaluru needs to invest in safe, efficient, and sufficient cycling infrastructure to protect those who already use cycles and to encourage potential cyclists to take to the streets. This needs to be strategically implemented in an evidence-based approach at a city-planning stage to allow for dedicated investments and data collection. Bengaluru’s 2019 Comprehensive Mobility Plan proposes a 174km network of cycle tracks in the city as a start, up from the current 20km. Cycle lanes need to be developed as much larger networks at par with the city road grid, along key arterial corridors and based on the city’s commuting patterns, to have a significant impact in enabling cycle-based commuting. It is also vital to identify, demarcate, and physically separate these lanes for cyclists along roads. Basic infrastructure like cycle parking near markets, workspaces, public transit hubs, and other destinations need to be delineated. With cyclists accounting for 1-5% of road accident related fatalities in the city, safety should be a high priority. Cycle lanes have proven to mitigate this risk for cyclists by over 80% in Delhi. Highly visible road markings and signage will additionally help other road users be aware of cyclists and therefore help enable safer road behavior.

  2. Matching demand with supply: Enough cycles need to be made available to potential users through different efforts. The 2011 census showed 23% of households in Bangalore owned cycles—today, this number might be far less. New cyclists, or those working in the city for shorter durations, may not buy cycles till they are convinced of its safety and efficacy. Enterprise-enabled public bicycling sharing systems, that allow for short term rentals, address this need well. However, additional mechanisms to help these entrepreneurs to sustain themselves in the city should be explored: While an effort was made in 2018 to enable cycle sharing schemes in the city, only one of the four companies remains operational in the city today. Additionally, the city can leverage the ecosystems of cycle shops and cycle enthusiasts to make cycles available on rental models. Companies in the city could also consider making cycles available as a transport option for their employees, and provide infrastructure, such as safe cycle parking and showering cubicles. Cycle distribution schemes for lower income groups will also help increase access to education and employment opportunities.

  3. Getting the word out: Awareness generation that cycling is a safe and viable form of transport can be built in three ways: first, to encourage potential cyclists to start; second, for other road users to understand how to navigate safely around cycling infrastructure; and third, to promote community ownership and enforcement. Bengaluru’s past experience with a 40km cycle lane in Jayanagar that succumbed to parking and vehicular road traffic shows that awareness generation is important. Commuters need to be aware that cycling is not necessarily a slower option: In Delhi’s cycle lanes, cyclists move at 12kmph– faster than Bengaluru's 8kmph crawl along several stretches. This can be vital for lower-income groups who use cycles as their primary commuting mode, increasing income-earning potential while reducing time spent on travel. Awareness campaigns, along with cycling safety training and buddy systems, can show how cycling allows for social distancing while travelling, and also improves personal health. Community participation and push plays a vital role in enabling this kind of shift.

Cycles can improve quality of life and health, help cities become more resilient to transport shocks, and help build back the economy as the full impact of COVID-19 emerges. Cities across the world, such as Paris, Milan, and Bogota, have used the lockdowns to reset and reimagine their workings, paving the way for cities like Bengaluru.

By making the city more cycle-friendly, we can provide Bengalurians an equal and safe option for accessing employment, education, health, and recreation. The need of the hour is to redefine what the new normal should look like for Bengaluru and the way to do that is by building a cyclable Bengaluru.

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