Is it ‘safe’ to commute on a bicycle in India?

When I started out commuting by bicycle, I was really excited. To the extent that, I neither cared about road rules nor was I interested in wearing a helmet (the most common question/advice I receive as a cyclist). And, as we all know this about Indians, no one gives a shit about helmets for a cyclist – neither the rider nor the police. On my part, I went about telling friends and family about how we don’t need to be demanding cycling lanes in our cities. What we really needed were cyclists. Because naturally, that will create the demand for a cycling lane and then the government will have to provide one anyway – which is how it works right? 

Mostly, I enjoy being able to manoeuvre the entire road as and how I please. So the idea of a small cycling lane scares me. I had a minor bump with a motorbike once. He was on the wrong side of the road; I was getting used to looking up and forward over my new drop bars, and it ended in a small collision. Fortunately for my bicycle and me, the biker was under 20 kph and I was under 10 kph.

As I rode around my town on my bicycle consistently, I began to notice something extra-ordinary about the regular cyclists on the road: they move around effortlessly, fearlessly, but cautiously. To me and you, especially if one is used to being transported in motorised vehicles, the prospect of getting on a bicycle probably seems quite dangerous. All of a sudden, your vulnerability is supreme next to fast moving traffic. You feel bombarded, invaded, conquered, and diminished.

But regular cyclists who have been commuting on them all their life, seemed care-free, puffing beedis, spitting paan, pedalling with their wives on the top bar, ladies pedalling with children, children going about with two more, and what-not. Come to India and see.

Take a look at the current status of road users on how they choose to go to work every day.

Mode of Transport used by Indians to Work in 2015

travel-to-work-soeSource: State of India’s Environment, 2016, Down To Earth (note: Rural Cyclists – 11.2 million)

A quick glance at the numbers show that the majority is still cycling or on foot. Motor bikes follow closely, followed by public transport like buses.  This may not necessarily be good news because the population on foot/cycling does not always have the ‘affordability’ for a personalised motor vehicle. So they have not actually ‘chosen’ to walk or cycle but do so only because of their economic condition. Here’s a chart representing the percentage of the different modes of transport by all of India to work:

travel-to-work

Source: State of India’s Environment, 2016, Down To Earth

As you can see 22 per cent move on foot, and 13 per cent cycle to work. Only 2.7 per cent use their own cars, while another 3 per cent use taxis or autorickshaws. Nearly 15 per cent use public transport – buses and trains. 

From these numbers, it shouldn’t be wrong to conclude that the government must focus transport infrastructure for walkers, cyclists, and public transport users.

In 2016, we have motorised vehicles everywhere – rural or urban. Therefore, every rational person on a bicycle naturally understands that he is quite vulnerable on the road. If you were a cyclist you know that safety cannot be extended to you by the Indian government nor will there be any safety airbags popping out to prevent fatality. 

Have you ever thought that this vulnerability, coupled with a slow pace, works towards his cautious behaviour to prevent accidents?

146,133 persons died and 500,279 persons were injured in 501,423 road traffic crashes in India in 2015. These numbers may be an underestimate, since not all injuries are reported to the police. Apparently, the actual numbers of injuries requiring hospital visits may be 2 to 3 million persons. Basically, we don’t know. So for the sake of argument, we can at least say that fatalities of road traffic accidents would get reported with a fairly small margin for error.

mode-of-transport-of-fatal

Source: Road accidents in 2015, Ministry of Transport & Highways, Government of India, New Delhi

Last year 3,125 (2.1%) cyclists died in road accidents; 46,070 (31.5%) motorbikers died in road accidents; and 25,184 (17.2%) persons died in light motored vehicle accidents. Your chances of getting into a fatal road accident is 8 times more in a car and 15 times more in a motor bike in 2015. The difference is massive. I know there could be un-reported ones in the cycling cases. But I don’t think they could even come close to any of the other categories even if they were accounted. Unlike injuries, fatalities will have to be accounted at some point. So the margin for error on fatalities is likely to be much smaller than the error on cases over injuries.

From these numbers these basic conditions can be inferred:

  1. people on motorised vehicles are way more likely to get into accidents than a cyclist;
  2. the existing infrastructure (careless traffic) is  pro-cyclist than motor traffic

I am not sure if cycling lanes are the key to unlocking the cyclists in Indians. Why wait for cycling lanes when the cause of accidents and victims are motored vehicles? Planners need to think this through. If you thought cycling was not the safest way to commute, now is the time to think again. You really don’t need to wait for a cycling lane in your city.

This was my instinct when I started riding bicycles. I knew I was safe because I had to be cautious at every turn. Why not? By being cautious I could also own the road and use it how I wanted. Indian roads are completely unorganised anyway and I might as well make the best use of it. Of course, nothing can guarantee the safety that “car manufacturers will advertise.”

As a cyclist, it is a sense of caution that one practices and habituates. That is the only protection against fast moving traffic. It cannot shield you against the careless driver. But look behind you every time you need to turn. You are free to pedal at your own sweet pace on the left-side of the road. When you expect to be protected, you have already lost the independence of a cyclist.

Source: Yehuda Moon & the Kickstand Cyclery

[A) Conclusions made in this article are at a pan-India level pertaining only to 2015. Data should be analysed for over a period looking at urban and rural areas categorically for any scientific judgement. I am interested in looking into it further when time permits. 

B) The usefulness of cycling lanes (those that cyclists are legally limited to and other lanes strictly meant for motor traffic) requires a much larger debate and needs to be studied thoroughly before they are introduced in India. This should be the case if we are looking at a future that will have more commuters using cycles along with a huge reduction in motor vehicles to combat every urban ailment – pollution, congestion, stress, obesity etc. I have seen countless videos on YouTube where they are an absolute deterrent to cyclists. In my opinion, cycling lanes suggest the superiority of motor traffic by ensuring a larger space to motor vehicles to transport lesser people. In India, there are more individuals commuting on cycles than on motor vehicles. I hope urban planners look into this before developing lousy cycling lanes for pencil sized people.]

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4 thoughts on “Is it ‘safe’ to commute on a bicycle in India?

  1. Great article – reading this I had a few thoughts and I felt like sharing some.
    Yes, I agree we need more people shifting from motorized vehicles to bicycles!! How can we convince them? So, I was thinking about the bicycle lanes. I never looked at them as constraining us to a specific space. But, thinking of traffic in India or Nepal, I well understand where this thought comes from. It is kind of satisfying to be sneaking around cars and trucks and buses to fill the gaps and be just a little faster than everyone else. But in the speed of some other traffics, I think I would enjoy a lane for bicycles. Plus, the lane does not have to be small – it could be huge😉 So back to my question: can we convince people to switch to riding bicycles? Not everybody likes the chaos on the roads and wants to afford the concentration needed to commute safely. So, maybe lanes would help convince those kind of people. Cyclists in Kathmandu came up with an interesting project. I am not sure if it actually worked or was used by anyone. But here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/649707861837718/ Basically people who are riding their cycles confidently from one place to another offer to ride with someone who does not feel as confident. So being in a pair or group could increase safety for the less confident rider. The other thought I had was about time. In highly dense traffic riding a cycle is often faster than driving a car. However, many times especially on long distances it just takes sooo much longer to get from A to B. But, then our life seems to be too much focused on running around and meeting deadlines anyway. So maybe if we all switch to bicycles we could also help decelerate our lifestyles and focus on important things more. Like protecting our environment.

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    • Hey, thank you for going through the article and I appreciate your comments.

      I understand when you say a lot of people are not comfortable going through traffic like that and don’t want to rough it out. I hear this from close acquaintances and friends all the time. It is a bit of a bother, I fully agree – the pollution, and the traffic. Any cyclist would prefer to have their own lane, including me. The problem for me is that the popular cycling lanes are so small and kind of corner the cyclist for big SUVs. So if you look at the larger picture of this outcome, the overall infrastructure will seem to favour and promote the use of motorised vehicles largely. The idea that gets re-iterated is that, “motorised vehicles are the way to go” and cycling continues to be a hobby. We need motorised vehicles for sure – for goods, for passengers, for long distances etc. But we need to learn to reduce its dependence, is my point. If we can get cycling lanes that are bigger and sensible than the current footpath-kind, I am in full support of that. In fact, that’s precisely what I’m dreaming of.

      For that to happen, we need more cyclists on the road. Most of India, is cycle-friendly except for some parts in big cities. There are “some folks” in cities who “believe” riding the bicycle puts them in immense danger even if their route does not involve any major roads where accidents are much lesser.

      I am talking to them. I’m talking to the people who know they are capable of it, but have one reason or the other to be driving. Their reasons may be absolutely valid. And these are people who actually WANT to commute on bicycles but have been misguided by popular thought and reason. People are getting used to the fact that cycling is a dangerous mode of transport which is NOT true.

      How we do we get everyone to bicycle? One step at a time. First me, and then my friends.

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