I don’t really remember how I learned to cycle, I just remember being able to. It’s one of those things that happen very early on, if you’re lucky. I recently rekindled this passion whilst finding an old bike in the garage. Seeing that it was in a sorry state, I got it fixed up and ready for the open air again. It was my way of convincing myself that I could keep fit and save money. Also, because it seems that Transport for London goes through a mini-crisis every now and again, this seemed like a good investment. Of course there were many little niggles to think about (where am I going to tie it up? How do I prevent it from being stolen? Is it actually a safe thing to do?). With all of these things flying about my head, I began taking the issue apart. Cycling is in effect a simple thing, the vast majority of Indians and the Chinese, not to mention certain Europeans, all cycle as their chief method of transport. Why then, have certain groups in society become so distanced from it, especially when it’s quite the norm in major metropolises across India? Understandably the geography is different in the west, but I find it difficult to understand why this hasn’t been pushed more strongly within our community as a cultural initiative.
I have very fond memories of arriving in India every few years, and getting my very own cycle. They seemed a lot more affordable back then, and the rate of exchange definitely helped. My sister once campaigned for a shiny new Hero Bicycle. I remember these being quite distinctive and a staple brand across the country. They were emblematic not only of the joy and pleasure of cycling but also of India’s strength in manufacturing and sustaining a brand. Hero cycles are still in circulation today, alongside other popular brands such as TI, Avon and Atlas to name a few. Wherever there’s a stronghold in metal manufacture, there’s inevitably some exploration of engineering for mass production. Taking this into consideration, I wonder how many NRIs can remember their own experiences of cycling and whether they’ve carried that over into their current lifestyles?
In many hot-spots across the western world, we’ve seen a big drive to reduce the number of green-house gases and toxic emissions. In an attempt for a cleaner environment, government policies have introduced a big emphasis on cycling. London’s Mayor Boris Johnson has pushed a scheme to rent bikes, much like some existing schemes across Europe. I wonder whether this is going to encourage NRIs to take up former habits and invest in a nice bike. Usually you only see those who cycle as a sport, but there is no reason aunties and uncles couldn’t have a go. Regrettably, wherever there is a surge in cycling, you inevitably encounter a wave of criticism and concern. It seems that whenever something is pushed into the mainstream – the harder it becomes to accomplish. For example, the more cycling has been pushed in the last couple of months in London, the more difficult it is becoming to achieve – with tighter rules and greater restrictions.
In some respect, this makes me very nostalgic about being able to cycle freely back in India. The vast majority of the time this was over long country lanes, where villages and towns are miles apart. Of course there was fast moving traffic, and no one really seems to wear helmets, but because there is a prevalent community of cyclists across the country, there’s almost an implicit code of behaviour. I’d imagine there was a law of physics that supported this. In a country where one grows up cycling as a way of life, or getting used to cyclists on the road, there are far fewer casualties. If we compare this to a nation where the expected method of transport is automotive, then cycling is naturally going to appear risky. In India, cycling for many is simply the most affordable and therefore necessary method of transport. Furthermore, one cycle isn’t just owned by one person for leisurely purposes, it can be ‘recycled’ by many members of the same family. Some families in India are of course quite comfortable with several cars, like most middle class families across the world, but I still believe they revere the benefit of the bicycle.
As a national icon, the cycle has also formed the basis of the cycle-rickshaw, displacing the traditional pulling rickshaw, cementing its role in cultural identity. It’s this process which could have happened in the west, but hasn’t. That’s not to say Rickshaws can’t be seen all over town – but simply to suggest that they’re viewed as a novelty. Understandably the United Kingdom is a very small island where space is at a premium, and cycling in general brings up logistical complexities - but what about America? Surely, under the same logic of space, you’d expect the same sort of cycling revolution to have taken hold? But perhaps the way the Americans look at the motor vehicle didn’t allow this to happen. The birth of mass-produced motor vehicles meant that its highways were conquered by four wheeled vehicles rather than two. In some state capitals, cycling initiatives are, however, being taken seriously: Portland - Oregon was recently praised for being one of world’s most cycling friendly cities.
Ultimately, this leads us to question how we all value cycles. The Katie Melua song Nine Million Bicycles – refers to the lyric ‘there are 9 Millions Bicycle in Beijing, that’s a fact, it’s a thing you can’t deny’. I’m not sure I’d be interested in actually verifying this, but what it tells us is that a large majority of the urban population own a bike and cycle in the east. They look at cycling as an everyday part of life. There’s an element of egalitarianism here, which one shouldn’t confuse with communism, despite there being a notional overlap. In simpler terms, it’s the idea that everyone has access to a simple form of clean transport – which puts them in the same pecking order. The same probably can’t be said of owning SUVs, Hummers or Porsches perhaps? The cycle, though resplendent in various forms, shapes and models, is still at heart the same structure, with the same iconography for most people around the globe. I just wonder how long it will be before it becomes an aspect of everyday life.