INDIA WATCHES FROM THE SIDELINES AS PANDEMIC FUELS BICYCLE SALES OVERSEAS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

COVID-19 and its accompanying need for physical distancing and maintaining good health, has caused bicycle sales to zoom in some countries. Any chance the trend may offer cycling in India, fresh impetus? Unlikely – that is the feedback from the cycling community. But there is hope.

For those into cycling and reading, a series of recent articles in The Guardian, would have been particularly heart-warming.

On May 15, 2020, Matthew Taylor reported in The Guardian that the city’s mayor proposed to close large areas of London to cars so that people can walk and cycle freely when the COVID-19-induced lockdown is eased. It would be one of the biggest car-free initiatives by any city worldwide. The reasons for encouraging walking and cycling: physical distancing would be tough to observe in public transport while the return of cars could precipitate traffic jams and increase air pollution.

Earlier, on May 10, 2020, Sean Ingle wrote in The Guardian about the growing relevance of cycling as mode of transport in a world where COVID-19 is forecast to linger. The resultant need to maintain physical distancing directs us to measured use of mass transport systems. We also seek avenues to stay healthy. It is in this matrix that cycling merits attention. It is viable non-polluting personal transport for short to medium distances. Further, as done by normal cyclists, it is a mild form of exercise satisfying the type of physical activity recommended by researchers as ideal to stay healthy. Ingle’s article mentioned a study by scientist David C. Nieman which helped establish that regular exercise assists in lowering upper respiratory infection rates while at the same time improving immunosurveillance. Also mentioned was a report by the US Surgeon General in the 1990s, recommending exercise as a vital component of preventive medicine. According to the article, Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary of the UK, has promised two billion pounds “ towards plans to double the number of cyclists and walkers by 2025.’’

The next day, May 11, 2020, Miles Brignall writing in the same publication reported that bicycle sales have been booming in the UK. Shares of listed companies in the segment had risen in value and the country’s biggest bicycle retailer had informed that sale of some equipment was up 500 per cent with bike sales itself prevailing at double the normal level. At smaller shops, stocks were running out and some had a waiting period. The article noted that cities around the world were rushing to improve their cycling infrastructure. In Germany, cycle lanes were being expanded and Paris was installing 650 kilometers of cycleways.

A couple of weeks earlier, on April 22, 2020, Justin Landis-Hanley reported in The Guardian that Australian bike retailers were struggling to keep up with booming sales following imposition of restrictions on general life due to COVID-19. The reasons cited ranged from people wanting to avoid infection and therefore staying off public transport, to regular avenues for exercise like gyms and pools being shut and the bicycle suddenly seeming attractive, to the aptness of the bicycle as a combination of exercise and transport in troubled times to simply having more time on one’s hands and therefore taking up a new hobby. The underlying instincts were visible in the sales mix; a considerable portion of bikes being sold belonged to the entry level segment.  The report said that a major worry among retailers in Australia was about exhausting stocks. Replenishing it would be tough as manufacturing facilities in Taiwan and China haven’t yet recovered from operations ceased due to pandemic. Further both the above mentioned articles pointed out that it wasn’t just sale of new bikes that was picking up; business in a range of services associated with cycling – including servicing of old bikes – had gone up.

When India slid into lockdown on March 24, 2020, all forms of transport – save those used for essential services – ground to a halt. There were even reports of people out for a morning walk, penalized by authorities. Flights and trains ceased to operate and automobile sales declined sharply. Yet even as air quality improved thanks to less vehicles being out, one of the early news reports based on equity analysts’ views cited potential recovery in car sales post lockdown, on the basis that the car offered an insulated cocoon for mobility amid contagion. Bizarre as this reasoning is in times of respiratory diseases growing, it is a fine portrait of the Indian approach to life. Needless to say, while the government has recommended specific protocols for using four-wheelers and two-wheelers (all motorized), there hasn’t been any utterance yet on cycling, forget its emergent virtues. In the absence of that and given how lockdown-rules are interpreted at ground level, you hesitate to take your cycle out for shopping and errands. India is among the world’s biggest producers of bicycles but the manufacturers’ lobby too has been strangely quiet. One can’t recall a single public service advertisement taken out amid COVID-19, reminding people of the bicycle’s ability to contribute to health; health of user through exercise and health of others by not polluting.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This blog spoke to the country head of a leading international bicycle brand to gauge whether anything similar to what has been reported from UK and Australia, could be expected in India. He confirmed the developments overseas; it featured in business conversations with colleagues abroad. But hoping for the same in India would be premature because the overall matrix governing cycling here remains bicycle-unfriendly. While there was the pet peeve of high duties imposed on imported bicycles, there was also the undeniable fact that India’s crowded, congested ambiance and lack of consideration by motorists for cyclists, continue to make cycling unenjoyable. Sample the following: on May 15, 2020, Times of India reported that despite lockdown (it started on March 24; at the time of writing it was still on) an estimated 321 lives had been lost in 1176 road accidents in India according to data compiled by Save LIFE Foundation, a NGO. When general lack of road safety hits home, it fuels the argument that only cars and similar steel cages on wheels are viable option for transport. Given personal safety trumps concerns for environment and climate change, nobody then has the patience to sample cycling’s virtues. It is a vicious cycle. There is also another angle, which neither the bicycle industry nor cyclists, openly agree to, although in private, they concur. It has to do with the ink of Indian imagination these days – GDP. Viewed through GDP’s prism, the automobile industry’s voice dominates like a foghorn. That of bicycles is a squeak you strain to hear.

According to one senior cyclist, notwithstanding the above mentioned handicaps, the last decade or so has laid the foundation for a cycling movement in India. The choice won’t be driven by supportive cycling infrastructure – that is a role the government may or may not perform. It will be based on informed choice. As paradigm shifts like work from home set in, more of us may consciously choose a healthy, non-polluting form of transport that is light on planet, maintains the physical distancing mandated by COVID-19 and is also more connected to world as compared to the steel cocoon and quick passage of a car. In fact, if life is going to be in and around the house for the near future, why would you congest your neighborhood bringing out your car all the time? So far climate change was a debate. But the days of pandemic, which saw humanity locked up indoors, proved that human activity restrained has the ability to revive nature, restore air quality. There is thus palpable evidence to base your questions to old world on. However the key to promoting cycling – those from this school of thought argue – may not lay in petitioning the central government. “ Local governments will probably understand better,’’ the senior cyclist said emphasizing the need to go local when it comes to promoting cycling. Reportedly, such lobbying has yielded results in the past. Closer to the present, local also makes sense because the relaxation of lockdown will be in line with what zone (based on severity of infection) your area falls into. The seed for change exists in the evidence we experienced due to COVID-19. Question is – will we plant that seed and let it grow?

Update: On April 25, 2020, authorities in Bengaluru formally permitted the use of bicycles during lockdown. In its order dated May 31, 2020, concerning guidelines for easing restrictions and phased opening of lockdown, the Maharashtra government has permitted the return of outdoor physical activities like cycling, jogging and running in non-containment zones from June 3 onward. No group activity is allowed; only open spaces nearby or in the neighborhood may be used and the activity will have to be between 5AM-7PM. “ People are actively encouraged to use cycling as a form of physical exercise as it automatically ensures social distancing,’’ the order said. All physical exercise and activities must be done with social distancing norms in place. The order said that people are advised to walk or use bicycles when going out for shopping. The above is a condensed version; for a complete overview please refer the actual government order. 

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)              

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