The Hindu: Correct the imbalance
He looked like a man who sold old newspapers. He got off his well-worn bicycle and, pausing at a bus-stop on Mysore Road, said something unintelligible to the conductor of an almost-empty bus. The driver was champing at the bit (the way he’d been flitting from stop to stop gave a whole new meaning to the expression touch-and-go) but the conductor asked him to hold his horsepower while the cyclist repeated his question. It appeared to make no sense. A bystander laughed and spelt it out clearly: “He is asking if he can get into your bus with his cycle.”
Driver and mate burst into a gale of laughter as they sped away but I remember thinking it a very sensible idea indeed. The man, weary of pedalling in the afternoon sun, must have hoped to save time and effort in getting to City Market. I thought of him when I read a report in the papers last week. At a recent function the transport commissioner is said to have announced that hitherto, all BMTC buses would have cycle racks. While I suspect he got the idea from not so humble a source as mine (could it be a foreign trip?) I’m also pondering the implications of this grand plan – if indeed it is executed and doesn’t go the way of other grand plans of the past.
First off, the motive behind building cycle racks in buses is not to ease the common man’s aching feet but to coax middle class bottoms away from the driver’s seat. The cycle-carrying buses would no doubt be the red, air-conditioned kind, and the cycles, the geared foreign ones worth Rs 20,000. Racks are meant for health-conscious urban-dwellers who could cycle part of their way to work or play in order to save the environment, and not for those who cycle because they can afford no other mode of transport.
But we’re talking blithely of cycle racks without visualising their position vis-a-vis the bus. Will cycles be parked upright inside the bus towards the rear? If so, quite a few seats would have to be sacrificed. Will they be stacked like sandwiches on the rooftop? Affixed to the interior of the bus along the sides or ceiling? Sticking out from the exterior like the bristles of some enormous brush? My mind boggles – how about yours?
If racks in even the fancy red coaches sound impractical, what to say of the ordinary blue-and-white ones? The common man cannot hope to jostle his way on board with his trusty Atlas cycle without earning the hearty curses of one and all. Why, even the vegetable vendor gets grumbled at by driver and conductor for hauling a loaded basket into a bus that needs as much as standing room as it can spare. Owners of expensive sports bikes will not step into such buses. They might step into the Metro, though, if and when it starts running, and cycle racks could easily find a place in it. Cycle to the Metro station, get into the train, get off and cycle to work. Good idea, no? The transport commissioner could announce it at his next function.
But first, our streets must be made safe for the cyclist. He is in constant danger of being slain by a pugilistic bus, van or lorry, and he sits barely one rung higher than the pedestrian who is, of course, the lowliest of the low. We pedestrians have never been given pavements worth their name to walk upon. Cyclists are now being gradually squeezed out. They have been robbed not only of their rights but also of their name, because when you say “bikes” these days people assume you’re talking of motorbikes, in the same way that “mail” has come to mean email.
And yet, it is easy to give cyclists back their rights, far easier to set aside separate lanes for them than for drivers of public transport. Remember the plan to have bus lanes and bus bays? It expired before it could take its first breath. And auto lanes? Other vehicles kept butting in, and autos started moving out, and pretty soon you couldn’t tell which lane was whose. No other vehicle can barge into a cycle lane, which is narrow by definition. When I heard an artist friend of mine say he wanted to campaign for space for cyclists I remembered how impressed I had been on a visit to Hyderabad in the Eighties to find that all major roads had built-in bike tracks. We never planned for them, in Bangalore, but when have we ever planned for anything?
Listening to me speak on behalf of the cyclist you might imagine that I own wheels. No, alas. I never learnt to cycle when I was young, and when I was in my twenties I spent a fruitless afternoon wrestling with a hired bicycle, at the end of which my brother, in the heartless way brothers have, said dismissively, “She has no sense of balance whatsoever.” I think it was a blessing in disguise. If I had learnt to cycle I might have been tempted to buy a scooter, for which I would then have substituted a car. But for my lack of balance I would not have stuck to public transport and would not have seen the cyclist at the bus-stop who inspired this column.