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Car-free Gurgaon, really?

It seemed more like a “no parking day” in the city

 
By Aditya Batra
Last Updated: Tuesday 22 September 2015

To free corridors from on-street parking, Gurgaon Police had employed 20 cranes to tow away the cars parked on roads (Photo; Vikas Choudhary)

Frankly, I was taken aback by the incredulity of my colleagues – you guys cycled from Gurgaon! I guess this sounded like a madcap idea given that every week, two cyclists die of accidents in Delhi. The occasion was the “car-free day”, declared in Gurgaon. My colleague and I thought it would be a good exercise. We had also invested heavily in fancy geared bikes that were gathering dust and were on many occasions nearly OLX-ed.

We started at 6:45 in the morning, and soon hit the “dedicated” lane from near Subhash Chowk, but we chose, sensibly, not to use it. We couldn’t, with the little glass shards and pebbles that can puncture your tyres; the layer of dirt and rubble that can cause you to skid badly; the piles of early morning collected trash you need to maneuver around; and the overhang from the un-pruned trees by the roadside that can slap you in the face. It seems so difficult to secure the roadsides for cyclists or pedestrians. We didn’t see a single cyclist use the dedicated walking and cycling track made along the Gurgaon-Mehrauli road. The space was instead taken up by parked cars, buses and trucks, by construction material, advertisement hoardings, or was dug up for repairs. And who thought of the the crazy idea of using cement tiles for laying the path? Cyclists would at all costs avoid the bumpiness of this ride.

Some relief, but chaos prevails

Today’s event is actually a “no parking day”, not “car-free” day. The theory is that severely restricted parking is an effective car restraint measure. Not today, apparently. Reports are coming in of the usual traffic jams and chaos. We saw cops jump at anyone trying to park vehicles on the roadsides. What’s not clear is whether parking is being allowed on the service lanes. A large car parking area has been set up at Leisure Valley park, the venue for many public rallies and mass-events, like Ramdev’s yoga shivirs.

I guess the unstated assumption is to get car owners to go to places without their personal car, and use public transport, cycles, anything but the car. And this time, there are many options. “Shuttl”, the app-based transport startup by two former Jabong.com executives, will provide regular bus runs from various parts of the city to Metro stations and office areas. Other forms of para-transit are to be made widely available. 

Encounters en route

Two hours and fifteen minutes from our homes near Sohna Road in Gurgaon to our office near Batra Hospital in South Delhi. Not bad. We could’ve been faster, but we were enjoying the little encounters en route.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but buses and trucks are kinder to cyclists than private cars and SUVs. Is it because a truck or bus driver will cycle home at the end of his duty, and has more empathy for a cyclist? As a car driver myself, I recognise such aggression and bratty road manners. India accounts for 11 per cent of the global road injury deaths each year. As a cyclist, I will have to rein my aggression in, or I’ll end up eyeballing every little traffic transgression.

In the end, it’s the little things that you notice when cycling–the urban landscape, unframed–even if for a short while. The immediacy of experience, the un-insulated feel of the road and of your surroundings. The random conversations you strike up with co-travellers at water stops, who marvel at our geared bicycles, but smile at our helmets and gloves. Or the impromptu racing with kids in the spirit of cheeky competition.

Street-side encounters are humbling, by showing up the contrast of a much vaunted one-off recreational outing, versus the daily 20 km commute of the 60-something security guard on his creaky Atlas Goldline, sans helmet or gears. That’endurance, born out of necessity. I just hope that a car-free day or road re-design project meant to separate office commuters from their cars will help him too.

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  • 'endurance born out of necessity' - people are willing to trade this the day they are able to afford a scooter. I've been meeting with cyclists in rural areas (southern TN) about what drives them to cycle in the first place. Like you say, just necessity. It is only the oldies who 'prefer' to cycle in these places.

    Another day I overheard a conversation in a train journey where this person (probably in his 50's) was talking about the how good cycling is for your health. Really, he'd pass off as drunkard if you met him, but he seemed so enthusiastic about bicycles and was upset about how people have moved on to motorised-everything. It was good to hear these people talk about cycling.

    But honestly, bicycles are vanishing so fast in India, given that we are building roads and highways meant for faster traffic. Every little bit of infrastructural development that is taking place is killing the enthusiasm of the daily commuter on a bicycle.

    Another significant thing, that shines a light on bicycling is that the Tamil Nadu state government has given free bicycles to school children. You see them everywhere in the mornings and evenings. It is literally blissful to see these kids on their bicycles. I only wish they had been given geared bikes atleast like a 5 speed thing. (I am not talking about expensive brands from abroad - I am 100 % sure you can make them cheap too in India) I say geared bikes because, people would actually hold on to bicycles longer in these places if they only knew how to handle a geared bicycle or had ridden one in the first place.

    At every pitstop I make, people do get curios about the my geared bike. I am always left with people who couldn't understand what the gears could do. Uphills are easier? How? They wouldn't know it unless they rode it themselves. And then when they get to the part about the price, they go on about their lives.

    I really think, Indian bicycle companies could do a whole lot better in both design and working with gears to market and draw a larger cycling crowd. I think one of the biggest loopholes in this game is also with these bicycle companies. Their designs are terrible, and they haven't been able to market geared bicycles to a bicycle loving crowd which could have otherwise held on to the bicycle a lot longer. They could design gears in those traditional Hero / Atlas cycles. They could design tricycles with gears. I know these are conceptual ideas and it is very difficult to change the mindset of the bicycling crowd (atleast those doing out of necessity), but these companies do have opportunities to stick them in. A perfect place to start would have been to give geared-bikes to kids in school through that government programme here in TN. I bet every one in the family would have tried riding them. I have witnessed what a curious lot they can be.

    Posted by: Joel Kumar | 3 years ago | Reply