Is cycling a crime?

As the world moves towards non-motorised vehicles, Kolkata harasses and penalises people riding bicycles

 
By Sayantan Bera
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Is cycling a crime?

Traffic police have banned cycling on Eastern Metropolitan Bypass without notifying

Teeming with cars and SUVs, the ever busy Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in Kolkata is off limits for Arvind Thakur. Until three months ago, Thakur would cycle 17 kilometres from his home on the southern tip of the city to reach Maa Ranisati Valet Service where he worked as a driver. Trouble began when the Kolkata Traffic Police erected signposts at different crossings on the bypass—a cycle painted in black with a thick red line cutting across saying “cycles prohibited”. One morning the police confiscated Thakur’s cycle while he was on his way to work. He had to pay Rs 100 to get it back. Since then Thakur started avoiding the bypass.

Why a ban on cycling makes no sense in Kolkata
 
  • Kolkata is the only metropolitan city in India where trips by cycle (11 per cent) outnumber trips by cars (8 per cent)
  • Traffic accident data for West Bengal (2011) shows only 1.5 per cent of road accidents happen due to fault of cyclists against 71 per cent due to faults of motor vehicle drivers
  • Kolkata has the lowest number of private cars and the least amount of road space (6 per cent) among metro cities. Even smaller cities like Gwalior have more registered motor vehicles than Kolkata. Cycling is practical and popular with the masses
  • Cycles do not slow down vehicular traffic. Average speed of traffic in Kolkata varies between 14-18 km/ hour. The national average is 22 km/hour
  • With a population of over 14 million, urban agglomeration of Kolkata is among the most densely populated in the country. At least 7,750 people live in one sq km area. Cycling is a practical mode of transport in such areas
 
The practice of penalising cyclists in Kolkata has been around for a few years now. On August 11, 2008, the traffic department issued a notification making 38 major roads in the city off limits for cyclists. “...with the approval of the state government, I, Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti, Commissioner of Police, Kolkata, with a view to providing for safe and uninterrupted movement of vehicular traffic, do hereby order that no bicycle shall ply or remain standing between 09.00 hrs and 19.00 hrs on all days on the following roads...,” reads the terse order.

The notification took recourse to the West Bengal Traffic Regulation Act of 1965, which allows the traffic police to prohibit plying of any class of vehicles on streets or in public places. Though the notification does not mention any penalty, the traffic police confiscate cycles plying on no-cycle roads and charge Rs 100 to release them.

The amount was Rs 70 two years ago. No voucher mentioning the offence or a seizure list is given to cyclists. All that the cyclist is issued with is a small piece of paper stamped by the traffic guard (see picture below). Besides, since 2008 the city traffic police have whimsically added more roads, including the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, to the list of 38 notified no-cycle roads.

When Down To Earth brought the matter to the notice of Dilip Kumar Adak, Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of traffic, he feigned ignorance. “The existing notification means cycles will be seized and sent to the dumping ground if they come into the main carriageways,” Adak said, assuring that he would check the allegation of cyclists being penalised. He also said that the department plans to issue another notification adding more roads to the list of 38.

No precedent

Stamped paper issued by traffic police after illegally penalising cyclistsThe notification issued by the Kolkata traffic police has no parallel anywhere else. Globally, Sri Lanka, China, UK, Germany and Japan are promoting non-motorised forms of transport such as cycling and walking. Amsterdam, the densely populated capital of the Netherlands, with a population of 800,000, boasts of 880,000 cycles. Even in India, several cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Rajkot, are promoting cycling either by creating dedicated tracks or docking points where one can hire and park cycles.

For an overwhelming mass of people in Kolkata, as in other Indian cities, cycles are indispensable. Data of the Union Ministry of Urban Development shows people in Kolkata make nearly 2.5 million cycle trips a day, second only to Delhi. From petty traders and suppliers to carpenters and masons, from the milk man and newspaper vendor to office clerks and courier delivery boys, the middle- and lower-middle classes depend on cycles.

A cycle gathers dust in suburban Kolkata as city roads remain off limits to cyclists

A visit to busy traffic intersections in Kolkata—Ruby, Ballygunje Phari or Moulali—shows that the number of cyclists has not reduced since the police commissioner’s notification, but their attitude has changed. Before approaching the traffic signals on no-cycle roads, they get off and walk with their cycles, sheepishly, like petty criminals trying to slip through. Samar Das, a street vendor, says thanks to a spinal problem, he no longer rides but walks with his cycle with a load of puffed rice from Howrah Station to Surya Sen Street. “I have paid Rs 80 to Rs 100 to the traffic police on several occasions. Lately, they have spared me as I walk with my cycle,” says Das. Harimohan Pal, an ink supplier to printing presses, has been cycling in the city for over four decades. He makes sure to keep Rs 100 in his pocket to pay a spot fine, just in case, and save his cycle from being seized.

Illegal, illogical

Last year, a group of people under the banner of Cycle Samaj staged protests against the notification. “The police tell us that cycles are slow moving and impede traffic speed, causing accidents,” says Alok Dutta, a group member. “But Kolkata’s average traffic speed is slow. On a cycle it takes me much less time than a car to travel long distances as I can take shortcuts through winding lanes.” Dutta recounts that the traffic police have stopped him at least 30 times in the past five years but each time he refused to pay, arguing that non issuance of receipts by the traffic police is akin to theft.

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Samik Sarkar, an activist-journalist in Kolkata who was part of the protests, asks, “Why is Kolkata prohibiting cycles when it is the cheapest, healthiest and the most environment-friendly mode of transport?” Even car-heavy Delhi or congested Mumbai do not treat cyclists the way Kolkata does, he says.

Anvita Arora, urban transport planner and director of Innovative Transport Solutions in Delhi, says the notification contravenes Central guidelines like the National Urban Transport policy of 2006 that encourage non-motorised forms of transport like cycling. In fact, Arora adds, in 2012 the Supreme Court quashed the plea of the civic authorities of Delhi to regulate and cap the number of cycle rickshaws to ease road congestion. In the landmark case filed by Delhi non-profit Manushi, Justice G S Singhvi asked the government counsel, “Do you dare confiscate and junk cars, the way you do with rickshaws? Do you even dare confiscate and destroy cars of those owners who indulge in drunken driving and mow down people? We know your mindset and how you treat the poor.”

image

When Down To Earth spoke to Alapan Bandopadhyay, transport secretary of West Bengal, to find out how cycles fit into the state’s transport policy he spoke in officialese: “Walking and cycling are important provided they are integrated in the traffic and transportation plan that is managed by the police.” Does that mean cycling is not integrated into the state’s transport plan? “Please allow me to rest at that,” he said, ending the brief telephonic conversation.

After coming to power in 2011, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee repeatedly spoke of her plans to turn Kolkata into London. Her government might want to look at London Mayor’s vision for cycling released in March 2013. “Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners’ attention befitting that role,” wrote an excited Boris Jonson, “... at the very heart of this strategy is my belief that helping cycling will not just help cyclists. It will create better places for everyone. It means less traffic, more trees, more places to sit and eat a sandwich. It means new life, new vitality and lower crime on underused streets. It means more seats on the Tube, less competition for parking place and fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.”

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  • One single word: Bravo! A

    One single word: Bravo!

    A much-awaited article, looking straight into reality. Let's hope it will force the elite to look into its un-civilising effect on our city! But do they consider it as their city also? Let's hope they do! All of us are required to re-civilise Kolkata, to make it again a place where children, old people, pedestrians, cyclists, and car-riders when out of their car, can equally enjoy the city in a safe and dignified manner.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very nice and to the point. I

    Very nice and to the point. I stay in Bangalore and I see so many people (owning cars/bikes) commuting in cycles just because of health reasons. How can a government be so insensitive to such non-polluting, health beneficial mode of Transport and not curb the most polluting vehicles like Taxis and autos which run on adulterated fuels (Kata oil)?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Please take up with Mamta

    Please take up with Mamta Banerjee or Kolkata High Court.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • If bikes slowdown car

    If bikes slowdown car traffic, then Why don't they also prohibit pedestrians from walking along crowded streets? Pedestrians also compete for the use of street space and move more slowly than bikes.

    Getting more serious. Probably no city in the United States or Latin America has a modal share of bike trips over 10%. How many governments in the so called developed world would like to have that many people riding bikes. This measure will definitely need to be rethought.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • I don't remember when is the

    I don't remember when is the last time I used public transport/metro or any private vehicle to travel in Kolkata...I have been using my cycle to reach faster than any car or motorbike would take me in the city..also no pollution and the fitness of my body and less space to park ..all are positives..so when I was fined the first time in Kolkata,it was a shock to me..I had to argue for a full 30 minutes with the sergeant and his senior to make them understand why cycling is better for me..and yes finally they reduced the fine to Rs5/- !!!(since they said they had already made the bill..I had to pay..only thing they considered was to reduce the amount) and let me go... :-) ..but it really makes me think about the future of this city...!! but Hope is always there and we the citizens have to decide the future...so get a cycle and ride on..!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Mithun, I am also a

    Dear Mithun,

    I am also a cyclist based out of Bangalore and always glad to meet a fellow biker. I am very tempted to start a petition to revoke this stupid law but it would be ideal if someone from Kolkatta does it. Would you be interested? i am happy to help you in creating the petition as well as spreading it.

    cheers

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • We have enough space for

    We have enough space for Hawkers, but no space for pedestrians and cyclist. We have roads for polluting vehicles, but no path for cycle. Saying YES to hawkers and NO to cycle and pedestrians.... what a joke. This is just the opposite of progress. What a vision??

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Well written article exposing

    Well written article exposing the folly in harrassing cyclists in Kolkata. Bicycle is the clean form of transport. One should move court on this to get justice.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • This is insanity coupled with

    This is insanity coupled with stubbornness. Hope the ban is revoked soon, else I have to look forward to resettle in Bangalore or Delhi or any other city that supports and encourages cyclists.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply