BANGALORE, India – Traffic in Bangalore, a friend once said as he steered a van, is like an ocean. Huge trucks swim next to motorcycles and scooters, who weave between compact cars. Always making waves is the abundant yellow auto-rickshaw, "a three-wheeled death trap made of metal and canvas," as one journalist dubbed it. The only sure motion is forward.
And a bicyclist is a very small fish.
Peddlers that do brave main roads hug their curbs, often moving like salmon. I’ve spotted a few helmeted riders; the city has a vibrant racing scene, but its members typically venture to rural paths. By and large, the commuting cyclist is rare.
A group is trying to change that. After setting up a bike-sharing program on a university campus, Gubbi Labs, a research hub, picked Jayanagar, the city’s first—and one of its few—planned neighborhoods for a pilot program. They teamed with local officials to install narrow strips designated for one use. New Delhi has a small stretch devoted to bikes, alongside a bus lane. But these 45 kilometers here, inaugurated with some fanfare last month, make up the nation’s first integrated bicycle path.
Last Friday afternoon, once the rains ebbed, I joined two of the people behind it for a spin.
The lanes felt familiar, with that universal sign painted below. The pace did not. That was thanks to several impediments. When the lanes went down, 'No Parking’ signs came up. Enforcing the signs, however, is another challenge—it remains the heftiest hurdle to the goal of expanding such paths citywide, explains H.S. Sudhira of Gubbi Labs, as we churn along.
A column of parked cars and rickshaws blocked our passage on one stretch, an oxcart on another. We biked past a cop writing a ticket to a car owner parked in the lane. But in general, my companions say, traffic police are wary of doling out the unpopular fines.
Roadblocks aside, in many ways I feel safer biking here than in U.S. cities. Motorists here, used to tinier road companions, are vigilant. The traffic barely moves beyond a steady crawl. Advisory honks are everywhere. I don’t fear the threat of a swinging New York taxi door or a blindly turning Chicago driver.
On Friday, I didn’t fear being surpassed by another cyclist either.
We were the only riders I could see in the lanes. In less developed Indian cities, cheaper manual two-wheelers proliferate. But in Bangalore, where the middle class keeps expanding, they don’t. Their numbers fell from a firm majority of the commuting total, four decades ago, to under 8 percent, according to 7 high street, an architecture and urban think tank in the city.
The few fellow bikers we saw laced through traffic, largely ignoring the path. As we went along, Lavanya Keshavamurthy, an organizer behind the lanes, joked that they upend sensibilities of the streets. After years of traversing India without lane discipline, staying on a straight path seems strange.
Still, long-time residents say this type of city infrastructure was unimaginable even five years ago. Further north, 7 high street is mapping a grander scheme: a plan to turn the city’s covered sewage drains into a 72 kilometer "soft mobility" landscape for non-motorized transit. It is elaborate, elegant and exceptionally ambitious, including plans for solar panels and underground water recycling. And streetlights, something soft Indian commuters sorely need.
The one time my steely urban biking nerves weakened was when night fell, when the reflectors and lights prove no match for the busy boulevards. For ten minutes or so, we swam in the dark.