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Tamil Nadu’s Health Minister Ma Subramaniam, who has been Chennai’s Mayor in the past, is famous for his love of marathons, bicycles and health-seeking activities that keep his diabetes firmly under control.

Subramaniam scored a bronze just days ago in the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry’s “Freedom 2 Walk and Cycle Challenge”, coming third among the top five in the ‘leaders’ category, with a running score of 390 km.

Chennai itself came in second in the ‘running’ category, with a score of 403 km, behind a somewhat obscure winner, Kota (Rajasthan) that clocked 979 km. The Ministry’s idea of “challenging” leaders and commoners alike to clock their best in running, cycling and walking launched last year aims at producing long-term change in the way people move in cities, with the potential to reduce congestion, improve health and generally make people ‘happy’.

The Freedom 2 Walk and Cycle Challenge was held from January 1 to 26, 2022 by the Smart Cities Mission, with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) acting as the knowledge partner, and marks the 75th Independence jubilee year celebrations.

Forty years ago, Chennai had wide pavements serving pedestrians in several places including Anna Salai, with a cement guardrail at many places to demarcate the sanctity of this space. But the onslaught of the car and motorized two-wheelers shrank the walkers’ space.

Of course, the average Chennai resident runs a different marathon every day, one that involves darting between vehicles towards bus termini, suburban railway stations and struggling to find pavements that provide some space for walking. Older citizens and persons with disabilities are increasingly unable to venture out, as there are no usable pavements in interior areas. These harried citizens go to the voting booths today, after loud proclamations by candidates during the election campaign, that their civic suffering is about to end when the new Greater Chennai Corporation Council is constituted.

The wheel returns

Forty years ago, Chennai had wide pavements serving pedestrians in several places including Anna Salai, with a cement guardrail at many places to demarcate the sanctity of this space. But the onslaught of the car and motorized two-wheelers shrank the walkers’ space. The ‘philosophy’ of road widening, dutifully played up by the mainstream media, held sway. Cyclists too had their own special place in the past, with a white box painted ahead of the stop line at traffic signals at least on arterial roads, so they could safely navigate their way. Those were signs of civilization, even if they were not perfect.

Today, it takes a Freedom 2 Walk and Cycle Challenge and “awards” to refocus the attention of city leaders to the issue of reallocating road space equitably, with some guaranteed space for the pedestrian. For the non-hobby user, unlike the hardy, simple and affordable models that characterized the bicycle decades ago (remember Sen Raleigh, Atlas, Philips, Hero, BSA SLR?) today’s offerings cost exponentially high amounts, even if they don’t want Shimano gears and neon wheel rims. There are no “hour cycle” rentals, where you could rent a bicycle cheap if you had a local reference, to run errands. Most city residents would not be able to rent today’s smart bikes that require expensive deposits and complicated IDs.

Smart Bikes lined up at Pondy Bazaar in Chennai. Although these seem like a great mobility option, the rents are expensive, and they require IDs and smartphones for one to be permitted to use them. This inhibits the ordinary chennaiite from hiring them.

Political parties do take out the occasional “cycle rally” even today as a form of protest or awareness building, and Chief Minister M K Stalin’s early morning cycle rides have brought him face-to-face with many ordinary Chennaiites. But things are not rosy for cyclists. The pilot projects to have cycle lanes along arterial roads have quickly been edged out by muscular automobiles.

 

 

Not so in the Netherlands, which has been raising awareness in India. That country is dedicated to the use of the bicycle as mainstream transport (27% of all daily trips there are made using pedal power), the plain old bicycle is alive and well. Chris Bruntlett, Marketing Manager of the Dutch Cycling Embassy told an ITDP ‘urbanlogue’ recently, “It is not the country being flat or any moral superiority or a different climate that has promoted cycling, it is infrastructure. Almost half the cycle lanes in the country were built in the last 25 years.”

That is the issue before Chennai. Will the newly-formed Metropolitan Planning Committee, which must have two-thirds of its members from elected Councilors as per Article 243ZE of the Indian Constitution and act in public interest, change the paradigm for walking and cycling? The same question pertains to other Corporations in the State, which attract the same constitutional provision, something that Madras High Court scathingly pointed out in 2020.

Not an election issue

Yet, this was not an issue in the Corporation Council election campaign, which was bereft of any pointed issues on walking, cycling, access for disabled people, and the floods that paralyze Chennai annually now. Candidates spoke in generalities about these while canvassing voters.

The focus of advocacy must, therefore, expand to elected representatives, and a new approach to non-motorized transport has to engage all city residents in walking and cycling. For this, enable car parking in public spaces should be charged a high fee, and hawkers and vendors should be licensed under the rules to remove chaos.

The Corporation Council election campaign was bereft of any pointed issues on walking, cycling, access for disabled people, and the floods that paralyze Chennai annually now. Candidates spoke in generalities about these while canvassing voters.

The Freedom 2 Walk and Cycle Challenge, which builds on the car-free days principle, will naturally bring more city dwellers on to the street. Future advocacy needs to focus on empowering this silent majority.

On what the Freedom 2 Walk and Cycle challenge has achieved in 2021 and in the recent contest, Aswathy Dilip, South Asia Director, ITDP, says, “City leaders were encouraged to walk and cycle, and the cities were prompted to look at longer-term achievements by 2023, in tune with the Smart Cities Mission goals. This can fast-track the creation of walkways, and bring healthy street policies to the center of urban design. Crucially, the Freedom to Walk and Cycle challenges brought citizens on to the roads, emphasizing their claim to the city space for green initiatives.”


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