Not many people know that this year is the 200th anniversary of the humble bicycle. It was in June 1817 that Baron Karl von Drais, a civil servant from Germany, completed a 13-km ride on a bicycle made mostly out of wood that weighed a decent 22 kg.
Incidentally, the cycle was invented as a response to the starvation of horses due to crop failure. The initial riders of these bicycles were men who would ‘risk’ enough to ride this not-so-natural mode of transport.
The popularity of the bicycle started to rise, and then came a big drop as there was an increase in the number of accidents involving bicycles. Some cities started banning bicycles due to safety issues.
Two centuries later, the story is still the same – at least in developing countries like India. As per the 2011 census, 45% or nearly 11 crore households owned a bicycle in India. Data also shows that 13% Indians use bicycles as their primary mode of transport for work while people using cars to go to work was found to be only 3%.
Despite the data, cycling usage is continuously coming down and most people use cycling as a mode commute due to economic reasons and not by choice. Cycling is also very unsafe, which is another reason for its decline.
However, Bhopal’s effort to promote cycling is something that’s worth considering. The capital of Madhya Pradesh in June launched India’s first “fully automated bicycle sharing system” called “Chartered Bike” with 500 bicycles.
Using a smart phone, people can pick up a cycle from anywhere amongst the 60 docking stations without worrying about taking it to its original location. The bike sharing system of Bhopal has many firsts but here are three reasons why it has the potential to transform cycling in India:
Figuring out the business model: Cycle-sharing projects cost nothing compared to projects like flyover, road widening etc but some how, cities never find this money in their budget.
The Delhi Metro tried to do small experiments with 20 odd cycles using advertisement revenue, but the project failed as the operator was only interested in advertisement revenue and not cycle-sharing.
Mysuru’s cycle sharing project is funded through World Bank grant which may not be a bad idea but it cannot be scaled up due to limitation of the grants.
Bhopal seems to have figured a way out and the unique public private partnership (PPP) framework gives enough for private sector to make it a business case.
Strong local buy-in: A WRI India’s analysis of the first month of usage data for Bhopal’s bike sharing system reveals that there is a strong local buy-in for the system.
The system has seen a registration of over 12,500 users in one month, meaning one user every three and a half minutes.
Some 40% of the rides originate and terminate at different stations highlighting that users are using it for their journey.
The average trip per bicycle has seen a steady increase and currently, each cycle does one and a half trip per day. Probably, the most interesting statistics coming out of the Bhopal system is the fact that more women have registered on the system than men, clearly highlighting the strong support that the system is enjoying from the local population in Bhopal.
Part of a bigger plan: The bicycle sharing system is not a one-off effort in Bhopal. The city has been consistently looking at promoting walking and cycling for the last three years or so.
The city started the effort with Raahgiri Day in September 2014, a concept that started in Gurgaon and has now expanded to over 40 cities around the country.
As part of Raahgiri Day, major streets are closed for traffic to promote more pedestrian and cycling traffic. The resounding success of Raahgiri in Bhopal states that people were ready to support any effort in promoting walking and cycling in the city.
This led to the city developing 12 km of dedicated cycle lanes, India’s widest at 5 metres. In addition, the city has developed a 60 km master plan for walking and cycling infrastructure.
Madhya Pradesh in known for innovation in the transport sector. Earlier, the Indore model of city bus operation got national and international recognition. Bhopal is on the cusp of starting a bicycle revolution in India and if it does, we would be in much better cities to live in.
(The writer is Director, Integrated Transport, WRI India)