My Shiny New Bicycle
Taking the leap from cycle vacationer to cycle commuter, our correspondent peeks into Mumbai's growing cycling scene.
Diwali week offered me the rare opportunity to do something quiet, far away, and so preposterous that no one else could possibly be interested. After a few days chilling in sleepy Ganpatipule, a beach halfway down the Konkan coast, my mind seized on a plan and wouldn’t let go. It was a plan in the classic tradition of so-crazy-they-just-might-work plans. And it did.
From Ganpatipule’s ramshackle ST stand, I hopped an early bus to Ratnagiri and hopped off an hour later at Shivaji Nagar, as instructed by my well-meaning innkeeper. As the bus pulled away I found myself face to face with the Mahagaonkar Cycle Shop.
Within half an hour, I was riding south on a brand new BSA Hercules Rebellio 619, my backpack strapped over the back wheel with a totally jugaad contraption of jute rope and used tire tubes. Four days, five punctures and two catastrophic brake failures later, not to mention the pedal falling off more times than I kept track of, I’d made it down the coast to Malwan and then over to Sawantwadi, where a bus back to Mumbai awaited.
Now comes the crazy part. I’d deliberately picked a clunky bike, less than suitable to the Konkan’s undulating roads, which dip down to wide-mouthed inlets before climbing to coastal bluffs. I reasoned that back in Mumbai I’d need something with enough sturdiness to compete in traffic. Lugging the cycle back with me on the A/C Volvo meant that I would possess, for the first time in Mumbai, my own means of transport—and that I’d have to use it.
The idea was revolutionary. Picture a bicycle rider in Mumbai and you come up with a delivery boy from a medical and general store, perhaps a Samajwadi Party worker, but someone with approximately the glamour quotient of a dabbawala. The watchman at my former building rode a Hero from his day posting in Pali Hill to night duty in Juhu, stopping off in between at his chacha’s jhuggi.
Elsewhere in the world, bicycle commuting might even be considered a little bit chic, but in Mumbai, it was all but unthinkable for the executive set. No doubt the images conjured up in the previous paragraph would horrify middle-class commuters, for whom the hope of joining the herd of Suzukis lurching back toward the suburbs each evening produces an aspirational adrenaline rush.
But we’re over that, right? We’re among the privileged few without anything to prove. For us, the truly aspirational is what’s convenient, what’s enjoyable, what makes sense. And for us, it’s easy to see that the reality of commuting by car—or bus, or auto-rickshaw—is far from pleasant.
“No matter how good your car is, when there’s traffic you cannot predict where you’ll get stuck,” says Anil Uchil, who has been commuting by cycle for over 30 years. “. On the cycle you can predict within a couple of minutes.” Uchil’s online Cycle to Work group, started two years ago, has attracted 273 members. Most of these, Uchil readily admits, don’t cycle to work. In fact, he suspects that no more than a dozen office workers in Mumbai (out of how many million now?) are regular cycle commuters.
“The cycle is the fastest way, and the surest way, of getting across any city—especially any traffic-ridden city—in India,” says Uchil. He should know: he’s been cycling for over 30 years now. Uchil’s first job, in Vile Parle, was over 20 kms from his home in Chembur. “When I started working in a normal office job, I started taking the bus and trains,” he recalls. “Within a week I gave up. I realised I’m not cut out for this.”
The bike’s eco-friendliness and the savings on petrol are certainly considerations. “With the amount of money I’ve saved in the last few years, I think I can afford to buy a couple of cars,” he says half-jokingly. But Uchil claims the main factor for those who cycle to work is the pleasure of riding. “I do it because, basically, I enjoy cycling. All the others are added benefits,” he says.
Cycling isn’t without its drawbacks. Especially in Mumbai’s sticky, sweaty climate, it requires a quick wash and toweling-off before changing into office clothes. And then there’s the potholes. (Drivers, if you think the roads are bad, just imagine yourselves shunted off to the side of them, where the joke of the pothole with a road in it becomes literally true.) Safety is a serious concern.
Cycle commuting has energetic advocates at Cycle Chalao, a bike-sharing program that was piloted last year in Mulund and active in Pune (which has 125 kms of bike lanes), with plans to spread further. Bangalore will get its cycle lanes soon. But Mumbai’s efforts are mired in controversy. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority spent Rs6.5 crore on lanes in Bandra-Kurla Complex—without providing any means of cycle access from Bandra, Kurla, or Sion. Uchil notes that use of these few lanes isn’t enforced; even the police chowkies sprawl into them. As many point out, the simpler problems need fixing before dedicated cycle infrastructure takes priority.
Bombay Bicycle Club is the critical darling of London’s indie rock circle. But it’s the Indian Cyclists Network, started by another cycle commuter, Amit Bhowmick, where bike-minded individuals meet and discuss.
Cycle to Work member Anool Mahidharia has even posted videos of his morning commute. They put one in the mind of a gritty (complete with the occasional curse) and rather challenging video game. Call it Grand Theft Schwinn. Harrowing though the ride may feel, he emerged unscathed.
Uchil says that in his 30 to 35 years of cycling, he’s sustained only minor injuries, a few scrapes and bruises, from a total of four accidents. Three of those took place in the last four years, but Uchil resists the conclusion that traffic has gotten more dangerous of late. “Two of those were definitely my fault,” he concedes. “If I had been more alert, I could have avoided them.”
There hadn’t been a single helmet on sale in Ratnagiri, and I wanted one before I rode in the morning rush. Uchil agreed that the helmet was a smart idea—not so much to protect my head, but because drivers would take me more seriously. So I dropped into Bandra’s Kohinoor Cycle Stores (“estd. 1927″) to shop for one. They were out of stock. My 3 km commute will have to wait a few days. Drivers, on your marks.