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Cyclists feeling the squeeze on India's roads

Andrew North
South Asia correspondent
@NorthAndrewon Twitter

image captionCritics say cyclists simply do not feature in transport planning in India

Sushil Kumar has been cycling to and from his gardening jobs in south Delhi for more than 20 years.

He has been knocked off his bike several times on the two-hour daily ride, fortunately escaping with cuts and bruises.

But a friend who also relies on his pedal-cycle was taken to hospital recently after a truck driver hit him on a turn.

Every day at least three cyclists or pedestrians are killed in Delhi, accounting for more than half the city's road deaths, according to one respected analysis of accident statistics - a sign of what experts say is a growing crisis in the capital's overloaded transport network.

If anything else was causing "so many deaths and injuries as we see on our roads it would be a state of emergency", argues Aunomita Roychowdury of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi think-tank.

The figures are as bad in other big cities like Mumbai.

But everywhere the car is in the driving seat when it comes to transport policy - even though cyclists and pedestrians together account for nearly three times as many daily journeys, according to the CSE.

In Calcutta, the authorities are going a step further, specifically barring cyclists from many roads as an extreme way to combat traffic congestion.

You can count on one hand the number of Delhi roads with dedicated cycle lanes, despite millions using their bikes every day to get around.

Most simply have to take their chances in the chaotic melee of buses, cars and rickshaws, as well as frequent wandering cows.

Pedestrians and cyclists are the lowest in the pecking order.

"It's much more dangerous now. There are more cars and they drive faster," says Mr Kumar. "My family worry whenever I am late back."

image copyrightAFP
image captionAt least 1,400 new cars are being registered in Delhi every day

As an occasional cyclist in Delhi, I know how terrifying it can be negotiating the city's ruthless traffic.

You spend almost as much time looking behind as in front, in fear of one of the city's notorious bus drivers clipping you from behind.

This week the squeeze on cyclists has been getting some headlines, after an accident involving the CSE head, Sunita Narain.

She was knocked down while cycling through Delhi in the early hours by a driver who fled the scene, and is still recovering in hospital.


In Europe, where cycling is back on the mainstream policy agenda, it is the middle class in the saddle.

But it is the poor who account for most cyclists in India and they have little voice, says Prof Dinesh Mohan, a transport specialist at the India Institute of Technology in Delhi.

Unless something is done to re-balance transport planning in Delhi and other cities, their problems are only likely to worsen.

Car ownership is growing by 7% a year in Delhi, with at least 1,400 new cars being registered every day.

Despite the arrival of a city-wide metro system, congestion and pollution are still increasing.

And car ownership is "still low in comparison with other countries of similar income", says Prof Mohan.

The answer he says is much better road design, to include cyclists and pedestrians' needs, and more stringent enforcement of traffic laws.

There is a particular problem with drink-driving, accounting for as much as 40% of road accidents by some estimates.

"It's a familiar pattern the world over," says Prof Mohan, of the over-emphasis on cars as countries develop.

"But just because others have gone this way doesn't mean we have to as well."