If you’ve ever been to India, you know how crazy the traffic can be. Every type of vehicle fights for space on roads that seem to have little or no organizing principle. Buses, bicycles, livestock, trucks, three-wheel taxis, motorcycles, rickshaws, and anything else that moves battle it out in a life-threatening scrum.
Now the city of Kolkata, population 14 million, has decided to do something about it. Something that, quite frankly, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
City officials recently decided to prohibit people from using bicycles on nearly 200 streets in central Kolkata during the day – this in spite of the reality that bikes are the primary mode of transport for 11 percent of the city’s people, who make 2.5 million trips on two wheels each day. In contrast, cars are used by 8 percent of Kolkata’s citizens. The rest use public transportation or travel on foot.
The ban represents a huge expansion of a prohibition enacted in 2008, which covered about 35 streets. It comes in the hopes of easing traffic that has slowed to an average speed of between 8 and 11 miles per hour.
The fine, up to 300 rupees, is a serious chunk of change for those Indians who live on laborer's wages – in other words, most of the people who use bicycles to transport not just themselves, but deliveries of everything from milk to construction materials. It's another blow to the already marginalized poor and working class people of Kolkata.
There’s another side effect of the cycling restrictions, though, that affects all of the city’s residents and visitors: they discourage a clean form of transportation where the air is choked with traffic fumes.
"It's absolutely off-track, and they need to reverse it," Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi told the Washington Post. "In our part of the world, we need to keep people on cycles and public transport, not force them into cars."
Back in 2004, researchers at the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute in Kolkata found that 70 percent of adults in the city suffered from respiratory symptoms, and that the rate of lung cancer was the highest in the world.
The city enacted a number of regulations designed to keep the problem in check, including banning commercial vehicles more than 15-years-old from the city center. Researchers at the Center for Science and Environment found in 2011 that pollution levels had stabilized, but noted much more needs to be done. Emissions testing put in place in 2008 as part of a package of anti-pollution measures, for instance, is routinely evaded by as many as 75 percent of the city’s vehicles.
The 2011 CSE report urged Kolkata’s leaders to "build on its strengths" – a dense, walkable and bikeable urban core with a good public transport system. Its authors write:
Reducing personal vehicle usage, upgrading public transport, walking and cycling, and leapfrogging vehicle technology are the key options left. Plan cities for people, not vehicles. Design roads for public transport, cycling and walking, not for cars. This is the only option for Kolkata now.
Instead, the city’s leaders are crushing one of Kolkata’s greatest resources for improving the quality of life – a strong cycling culture. Beijing has seen how difficult it is to turn back once you have discouraged bicycle use and encouraged auto dependence. Kolkata should rethink its policies before its mistake becomes irreversible.