The Indian city of Kolkata (population 14 million) is one of the most polluted in India, with high rates of lung cancer as well as respiratory ailments and other illnesses. Yet city authorities recently extended a ban on bicycling to 174 of Kolkata’s roads, leading to an outcry from environmental activists and threatening the livelihood of many of the city’s poor.
Kolkata’s police commissioner first banned bicycles on some three dozen streets in 2008, on the grounds that this would alleviate traffic congestion in the fast-growing city. Now bicycles, non-motorized rickshaws, carts and cycle vans are not allowed on a total of 174 roads.
While some bike travel is allowed after business hours, many of those whose income relies on bicycles say that the new ban is “tantamount to a ban on cycling in the entire city.” Kolkata has many small streets that cannot be navigated by trucks. While 11 percent of residents owns a bicycle, only 8 percent own a car.
The complications on many people’s lives created by the ban are clear. Prabhunath Rai owns a fleet of three-wheeled cycle carts; with the new ban in place, his business has definitely been affected. Plus, as he says, “All of us feel like criminals now. With 174 streets, it’s almost the whole city, so everything we do is a crime.”
One milkman, Mehmood Khan, says that he has already been ticketed 15 times and forced to pay fines of 100 to 300 rupees (about $1.60 to $5 — his wages for the day) on the spot.
So far, the Kolkata government has avoided saying very much about how the new policy is hurting workers and the poor, instead emphasizing the ban will help with traffic flow and improve safety.
Environmentalists have made it clear that the ban will only make dangerous levels of pollution in Kolkata — illustrated by the yellowish tinge to its Queen Victoria Memorial — even worse. Even more, the restrictions on bicycle use in Kolkata fly in the face of the Indian government’s own transportation policy, which encouraged the use of bicycles. New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Pune have all added bike lanes in recent years.
Gautam Shroff, a bicycle shop owner who heads a local bicycle advocacy group, Ride 2 Breathe, says that class divisions as one reason for the ban. Riding a bike has “traditionally been seen as a ‘poor man’s transport’ rather than an environmentally friendly transit option or a recreational activity,” he notes. He’s been trying to change Kolkatans’ attitudes about riding bikes by selling $500 bikes to middle- and upper-class customers and also taking people on mountain bike treks outside city limits.
Kolkata is not the only Asian city that could be said to be choking on the fumes of its economic success. The growth of the middle class in China over the past 20 years has also resulted in millions putting aside their bicycles and embarking on an ongoing love affair with cars. Via attractive car loans, the Chinese government has actually promoted car buying to keep the country’s economy growing.
The result has been not only a huge increase in traffic congestion in cities from Shanghai to Guangzhou but a rapid decline in air quality, highlighted by recent reports about smog so thick in the northern city of Harbin that airplanes have been grounded, major roads have been closed and schools have not been open.
In Beijing alone, there are more than 5 million cars now; in early 2008, there were “only” 3 million. The Chinese government has sought to restrict car traffic and people are starting to express growing concerns about terrible air quality. Such emergency measures are, the New York Times observes, a sign that the Chinese government is acknowledging the pollution rather than letting it go unremarked upon as Kolkata officials have been doing or seeking to cover it up. But neither restrictions on cars or bicycles are measures that address the problems posed by more and more cars being driven in urban centers.
Kolkata authorities say that they plan to introduce elevated bike lanes. This is a good start but, as Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, makes clear, the city is definitely moving in the wrong direction with the bicycle ban. As Chowdhury emphasizes, ”in our part of the world, we need to keep people on cycles and public transport, not force them into cars.”
Photo via Wikimedia Commons