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Is cycling the answer to our urban woes?

January 19, 2010 15:27 IST

Mahesh Vijapurkar on a unqiue business venture in Thane that hopes to popularise cycling.

Will V Ramesh, a former big shot in a stock broking firm be a successful entrepreneur who has started out hiring out bicycles because it would be a nice thing to save the environment, enable the users to improve their health and above all, help them reach their short distance destinations in quick time?

One does not know but he is a good candidate for everyone's good wishes for it is a business with a noble intent behind it -- not just crass commercial intent. In fact, the banker P K Das who backed his business just recently launched had this to say, "I was convinced by his commitment to get people back to cycling."

Ramesh had even thought that the very idea being eco-friendly, angel financiers and venture capitals would support him and easily but he was disappointed. All bankers he approached save Das did not come back with even a question, leave alone an offer of credit. Some venture capitalists asked him instead to try battery-operated cars for hire.

After all, in a city like Thane where the municipalised bus service amounts to little, where few bus routes have been laid out to the benefit of the arrogant autorickshaw drivers, cycling could be an ideal alternative. The bus service does not even have optimal route planning, nor even enough buses.

This business has simple arguments in its support. It can get people from place to place with little investment, practically no operating expenses and keep the person fit enough to avoid the gym fees or treadmill costs to shed fat and tone up muscles. It is the best multipurpose equipment of immense value.

And yet, most of us middle-class people still opt for a motorbike, then aspire to a small car, and then in the bargain load our lives with more of sedentary habits. This is so in a country where every child's first big plaything is the bicycle. They just don't seem to get on to the roads, one parental argument being the anxiety of letting them risk the accidents, forget the rewards.

But there are other advantages of bicycling. One, it does not pollute the air. Two, it does not clog the streets with cars and buses which have higher footprints and force the pedestrian off the ever-narrowing sidewalks. Three, actually, if the conditions are conducive to cycling, people can get from point to point quicker in most cases.

It would seem that one needs a revolution -- or unaffordable prices of car and petrol/diesel -- to get people back to the pedal power. And peddling, unless you are very old, or suffer from osteoporosis, osteoarthritis or some such disorder is said to be quite easy. A modicum of fitness helps for it would only improve. This means there are very few cycling enthusiasts.

However, Ramesh has started an enterprise to get people back to cycling. He opened a business in Thane which he says is the country's first bicycle sharing programme where a person can pick up a bicycle at a depot, go to the destination, drop it off at another and for the return pick up another.

"It can't get simpler than that," he said and he is right. Of course, he runs the risk of people asking why is it that one needs to pay a deposit which can fund partly the purchase of a bicycle. He has answers: for one, where would one drop off the bicycle, say at the Thane station when going there from home to catch a train. Would the bicycle be there when you return?

While cycling enthusiasts do pedal around, sometimes mind-boggling long distances, it has often been hard to get people return to these simpler vehicles though of course, gears have been incorporated to make it easier. Worldwide, of late, higher cost of petrol had driven people to buy bicycles. So, it is not the obesity, not the need to exercise, not the need to cut down on carbon emissions, but the sheer economics of wanting to avoid higher fuel costs that see the Western world buyer opt for one.

Here in India, in cities which are planned increasingly for only the motorised vehicle, cycling paths are very few. Pune has it in some parts, Thane laid out some and then forgot about it and the argument could be about the safety of venturing out in a road to compete for space with a multi-axel container truck or a recklessly driven car.

Now a belief is gaining ground that the infrastructure would follow if there are enough cycles which demand segregation of traffic to ease their use and safety. Not having a separate track for them need not be the issue because, it appears, it is a case of the egg or the chicken first.

This guy's optimism is infectious. He is planning to open as many depots as it takes from the initial five, one of them at Thane Station for people to pick and leave bicycles. He thinks that his business, already worth Rs 1 cr worth at the time of its launch is scalable and he would be hiring out about 800 bicycles daily at between 5 to Rs 20 per hour, depending on the scheme one opted for. He hopes 4,000 people would take to cycling again.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator.

Mahesh Vijapurkar