Celebrating the humble bicycle | Sunday Observer

Celebrating the humble bicycle

The bicycle too is changing for the better
The bicycle too is changing for the better

The world is being literally choked by traffic and the associated smog and pollution. The rise of the car has contributed heavily to global warming, which would have disastrous consequences for the entire world if it goes unchecked. Just last week, we discussed in these columns the possibility of a 2 metre sea level rise by 2100.

But all hope is not lost as there are many viable solutions in sight. The electric car is one solution (though it will not solve the problem of traffic) and enhancing public transport is another. The trick here is to get more car owners to switch to public transport by offering a faster, more comfortable ride to the city. Renewable energy is one other alternative. Just imagine the fossil fuel savings if all the thermal power plants can be replaced with wind and solar.

But there are two modes of transport that do not require any external energy at all – walking and cycling. Both are good for the body as well as the mind, being vigorous forms of exercise. But one cannot walk for more than a few kilometres, especially, in a big city, which leaves cycling as an option or alternative to the car over medium distances.

Tomorrow, the world will focus on this somewhat old form of transport on World Bicycle Day (June 3). The bicycle has come a long way since its invention exactly 202 years ago (June 12, 1817) by the German aristocrat Baron Karl Von Drais. Today’s modern bicycles are lightweight, aerodynamic and multiple-geared to tackle even steep inclines. Bicycles are by far the cheapest mode of transport available – even the poor can generally afford to buy one.

The mobility needs of people who walk and cycle – often the majority of citizens in a city – continue to be overlooked, states Share the Road Program’s Annual Report 2018, even though the benefits of investing in pedestrians and cyclists can save lives, help protect the environment and support poverty reduction. Meeting the needs of people who walk and cycle continues to be a critical part of the mobility solution for helping cities decouple population growth from increased emissions, and improve air quality and road safety.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), safe infrastructure for walking and cycling is also a pathway for achieving greater health. For the poorest urban sector who often cannot afford private vehicles, walking and cycling can provide a form of transport while reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, diabetes, and even death.

There are many reasons to celebrate the bicycle. According to the WHO, it is a simple, affordable, reliable, clean and environmentally fit sustainable means of transportation; The bicycle can serve as a tool for development and as a means not just of transportation but also of access to education, health care and sport; The synergy between the bicycle and the user fosters creativity and social engagement and gives the user an immediate awareness of the local environment; The bicycle is a symbol of sustainable transportation and conveys a positive message to foster sustainable consumption and production, and has a positive impact on climate.

On World Bicycle Day, the United Nations encourages Member States to: devote particular attention to the bicycle in cross-cutting development strategies and to include the bicycle in international, regional, national and sub national development policies and programs; improve road safety and integrate it into sustainable mobility and transport infrastructure planning and design, through policies and measures to actively protect and promote pedestrian safety and cycling mobility; promote the bicycle among all members of society, and organize bicycle rides at national and local levels as a means of strengthening physical and mental health and well-being and developing a culture of cycling in society.

Many countries now have policies which actively promote cycling to school, work and other activities, such as, dedicated bicycle lanes, free secure parking and better signposting for cyclists. Many cities also have cycle stands where one can rent bicycles and e-bicycles (cycles with a small electric motor attached, for easier hill climbing) for a small fee using a smartphone app. Once the trip is over, the user goes to a similar bicycle stand and locks it.

Our love affair with the private car has nearly obliterated the bicycle from our streets, with only the poorest segments of society and professional racing cyclists using bicycles. Bicycle use is much higher in rural areas than in urban areas, but regardless of area, cycling remains a highly dangerous form of transport here as other road users have little or no regard for cyclists. Another inhibiting factor is that there are no proper cycle lanes anywhere in the country, save for some of the jogging tracks. While our law enforcement authorities are very strict on the helmet policy for motorcyclists, there is no such law for cyclists, which means they have a far greater chance of getting injured or killed in a road accident. The use of helmets must be made mandatory for cyclists regardless of age.

Sri Lankan authorities should study how countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark have created a strong cycling culture. Their capitals, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are regarded as the most cycle-friendly cities in the world. Amsterdam alone has 515 km of dedicated cycle lanes. There are actually more push bikes than people – 22.8 million bikes or about 1.33 bikes per person in Amsterdam. It has even converted many roads to car-free zones to allow access to only cyclists, pedestrians and sometimes trams.

Amsterdam has designed its roads to be “bike first, car second” – now only about 24 percent of all trips are done by private car or taxi. In fact, some publications are already debating how cyclists and driverless cars will co-exist in Amsterdam and other bike-friendly cities in the future. However, it will not be possible to ‘import’ all these features to developing countries which still have an obsession with private cars, but a start has to be made somewhere.

The bicycle is certainly back with a bang and increasingly looks like the smart mobility choice for the future. From lightweight construction materials, new tire technology, new gearing systems, integration with Google Maps, better lighting systems and unobtrusive electric motors, the bicycle too is changing for the better – even many car makers are now making advanced bicycles. These still cost a pretty penny, but prices would come down in due course. Still, our roads are highly dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, but a change of attitudes, a shift towards more public transport and new traffic management solutions could make the bicycle a more viable option for shorter journeys. Ancient but paradoxically modern at the same time, the bicycle could yet be the answer to our transport woes.