The importance of robust transport systems in promoting socioeconomic development is well understood. However, developing a transport system that considers the diverse needs of a vast country like India is beset with challenges. The existential nature of the covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed a lot of things, but most importantly how we think and plan. The risk of viral transmission from public transport (both real and perceived) is here to stay. This has resulted in many people preferring to opt for personal transport, leading to the use and sales of bicycles increasing substantially across India. This is similar to what has been seen in many other countries.
Could covid-19 be the proverbial “un mal pour un bien” that leads to the development of a transport system which is not only safe, affordable, and inclusive but also resilient—providing health, environmental, and economic benefits? We hope this will be the case.
The benefits of bicycles
Seventeen of the 25 most polluted cities in the world are in India. A recent study estimated that about 18% of total deaths in the country in 2019 were attributable to air pollution. Vehicular and industrial emissions are an important contributor to air pollution in India, where the Air Quality Index (AQI) is rated as being “Very unhealthy” (200-300) for a large part of the year. Unfortunately, India’s policies have so far focused on the time of the year from October to January, when AQI becomes “hazardous” (>300), which coincides with events such as Diwali and stubble burning. Such strategies are akin to offering band aids to heal deeply necrotic wounds. Blaming the seasonal activities of farmers on a low wage for what is also essentially an urban and year long issue is additionally problematic.
With climate change high on the agenda, we should be ushering in large scale action that embraces more sustainable forms of transport. Bicycles offer a healthy, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly solution. Analysis of a new transport model in Stockholm that promotes bicycling estimated it could decrease the mean population exposure for both NOx and black carbon by about 7% in the most densely populated areas of the city, resulting in decreased mortality.
India has a considerable burden of non-communicable diseases and increasing physical activity is crucial to preventing them. A meta-analysis of 187 000 individuals found that cycling can decrease all cause mortality by 10%—this is after adjustment for other physical activity. Developing ways to increase people’s use of bicycles is therefore a sound investment from a public health perspective too as it would have health benefits at a population level.
The new economy and micromobility
It is expected to take a few years for the Indian economy to recover from the impact of the pandemic, with some commentators expressing concerns that the pandemic has widened inequities even further. People in India spend about 20% of their monthly households budget on transport. Reducing this output and providing people with more expendable money will be key to expediting India’s economic recovery. While car sales rose in India towards the end of 2020, this will increase people’s spending on transport and only the automobile and petrol industry will benefit from it. Again, bicycles have the advantage here. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) estimates that if we replace two and four wheelers with bicycles for short distance trips, it could result in an annual benefit of 1.8 trillion Indian rupees nationally.
The healthcare costs saved by the public health benefits of bicycling both at an individual and macro level might also be substantial. The social benefits of bicycling, including the fostering of community spirit and engagement with likeminded people, would ultimately lead to substantial economic benefits too. Modelling these should be part of sustainable development plans in the future.
The way forward
Cars are the ultimate status symbol in India. The first sign of a family doing well financially is the act of buying a car. An important part of encouraging the use of bicycles will be dispelling the notion that they are a “poor man’s transport,” and emphasising the ways in which they are “vehicles of the future.” This changed narrative is already taking root in the young urban middle class, but a greater push is needed. Social marketing campaigns that educate and encourage communities to opt for a “Green Travel Habit” are a good starting point.
India already has a very well drafted National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), which lays out a plan for better road networks and associated facilities like road intersections, cycling tracks, secure parking spaces, and app based bicycle hiring services that provide connectivity to and from transport hubs. The NUTP also recommends that an “Urban Roads Code” should be adopted to ensure the safety of bicycle users by designing speed limits and barrier free accessibility, but little has changed on the ground. India needs to make bicycling safer by actually implementing the Urban Roads Code across the country and not just haphazardly in a few sections of selected cities. Roads should be audited for hot spots for accidents and appropriate mitigation strategies should be formulated.
Financial incentives to make the use of bicycles more attractive are also needed. A “climate change tax” (using the polluter pays principle) on personal cars and fuel for personal vehicles would be one fiscal push. This would only impact people who are well off and encourage use of more environmentally friendly forms of transport. Removing the Goods and Services tax on bicycles needs to be a parallel investment, along with providing free bicycle helmets, making their use mandatory by law, and making our transport infrastructure more bicycle friendly to prevent bicycle related injuries.
India currently prioritizes vehicles, not people, with non-vehicle users ignored in policies and development plans and infrastructure disproportionately focused on building for motorized vehicular traffic. Micromobility should be a key area that India focuses on in transport policies for the post-covid era, especially with virtual workspaces becoming more common. Bicycles are vehicles of the future and it’s time for India to invest in them.
Sucharita Panigrahi is studying for a master’s in public health degree at ICMR- Regional Medical Research Centre, India.
Soumyadeep Bhaumik is a medical doctor and international public health specialist working on policy impact and injuries at the George Institute for Global Health, India.
Disclaimer: All views in this article are personal.
Competing interests: none declared.
Originally published in BMJ Opinion.