Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 27 October 2013
Indian environmental activist Sunita Narain was seriously injured while cycling in New Delhi last Sunday, October 20.
She was hit by a car while on her daily cycling run near Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences. She suffered fractures on both her arms and her nose, and underwent nine hours of surgery. She is currently recovering. The car had fled without stopping.
This news was particularly shocking as Sunita is an old friend — and alarming because she has been at the forefront calling for safer and healthier cities in South Asia.
“Cyclists in Indian cities are being edged out systematically to make way for cars – sometimes literally so,” said a statement from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the independent research and advocacy group that Sunita heads.
Sunita and CSE have been vocal campaigners for people’s right to walk and cycle, especially on the roads of urban India.
“Our right to walk, cycle and our health is not negotiable. There is war on our roads to reclaim space for people – for us,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s director for research and advocacy in an op-ed written the day after the accident.
She added: “If any other cause was responsible for so many deaths and injuries as we see on our roads, it would have been a state of emergency. But policy neglect in our cities is unsettling.”
Anumita referred to a study by University of Michigan and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi, which showed that the number of people killed in road accidents in India has increased at 8% annually during the past decade — nearly the rate at which the country’s car sales have grown.
Coincidence? She thinks not.
The most alarming statistic: “Cyclists and pedestrians are more than half of all road fatalities in the country — but draw public disdain and policy hostility.”
Not by laws alone
It’s not just in India. Worldwide, pedestrians and cyclists are the category of road users most at risk of being killed or injured in traffic accidents according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). They are also the most ignored by infrastructure planners.
In the Global status report on road safety 2013, WHO says this “demonstrates decades of neglect of the needs of these road users in current transport policies, in favour of motorized transport.” [Full report at: http://tiny.cc/RSR13]
The global health agency now considers road traffic injuries an important public health problem, which prompted it to declare a Decade of Action for Road Safety, 2011-2020.
A common reaction to traffic accidents is to demand increased policing and harsher penalties, or call for reducing the number of new vehicles. But as we have pointed out, ensuring road safety is not simply a matter of better law enforcement; it’s more a product of careful urban planning and design.
As Anumita — who has spearheaded CSE’s advocacy campaigns for cleaner air – argues, policy disdain and neglect are responsible for “the homicide of zero emitters (cyclists) who are part of the solution to the mobility crisis and cancer-causing air pollution that is snuffing life out of cities.”
City design, transport planning, air quality and public health may fall under the purview of different government agencies. But in our chaotic cities, these factors come together to create urban nightmares. Solutions also require an integrated approach.
Can we awaken from this sleep-walking before it’s too late?
Of course, not all cyclists are equal: while some have a choice of transport modes, many don’t. As Anumita says, most Indians cycle not out of choice, but because they cannot afford anything else. “But those who could have cycled as a preferred mode of travel shy away, are afraid, and shun the idea.”
Lanka’s Mean Streets
We in Sri Lanka are no better. As I noted last year, our roads and public spaces are not at all cyclist-friendly. Dedicated bicycle paths and cycle parking spaces don’t exist. As a result, cyclists and pedestrians regularly risk being hit by larger vehicles such as SUVs, buses and trucks.
Some motorists have even been accused of deliberately targeting cyclists. In such a setting, few would ride if they have any choice. Hobby cyclists take their chances.
Yet, government surveys show that the humble bicycle is still the most pervasive means of personalised transport. Despite this, bicycles and other non-motorised modes of transport rarely get the attention of policy makers or media. They are often dismissed as the poor man’s options.
Some city authorities consider cyclists a problem (to be sure, our cyclists need more road discipline too). Last month, for example, Kolkata saw a ‘cycle satyagraha’ against a police ban on cycling on 174 roads. The rule was apparently introduced “to provide safe and uninterrupted flow of vehicular traffic”. Activists dispute the claim that cyclists slow down traffic: that city’s average speed is already a low 14 to 18 km per hour.
The class factor also counts. The voice of mostly poor cycle users is rarely heard.
As Indian cyclist Altaf Makhiawala wrote this week in Tehelka.com: “While the concerns of urban middle-class/elite cyclists are back in the spotlight with the latest incident, sadly, this brouhaha shall die and the voices of those who don’t have a choice in commuting daily by cycle will remain unheard and lost.”
The development of roads and cities all over South Asia is very much car centred. The interests of buses and trains come next, followed perhaps by three-wheelers. All these modes have powerful lobby groups or trade unions.
No such voice for the bicycle, bullock cart and rickshaws (still used in part of the subcontinent). Yet these are among the least polluting modes that can be part of a sustainable transport mix.
This is no longer an esoteric ‘green’ concern, however; it’s a matter of life and death. Earlier this month, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialised cancer agency of WHO, said that exposure to air pollution can cause lung and bladder cancer.
Since vehicle fumes account for more than 60% of Sri Lanka’s air pollution, solutions have to tackle the transport sector.
We should look at ways to increase eco-mobility in our cities. This means integrated, socially inclusive and environmentally friendly transport options – including walking, cycling, wheeling and travelling in shared mass transit systems such as buses and trains.
Ecomobility is not a rich world luxury. Some middle income developing countries have produced inspiring and cost-effective innovations.
For example, during a single term as mayor of Bogotá, in the late 1990s, Colombian economist Enrique Peñalosa promoted a city model that give priority to children and public spaces and restricted private car use. He built hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, greenways and parks.
He also set up a new, successful bus rapid transit system to serve a sizeable number of its 7 million residents. While it set a new standard for urban mobility admired worldwide, a dozen years on it has run into some issues of maintenance.
Peñalosa, now a visiting scholar at New York University, reflects: “When we build very high quality bicycle infrastructure, besides protecting cyclists, it shows that a citizen on a USD 30 bicycle is equally as important to one in a USD 30,000 car.”
He is perhaps best known for his perceptive remark: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation!”
We have a long way to go.
Read CSE’s coverage on Cycling in Heartless Cities: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/cycling-heartless-cities