Bicycles emerged as a beacon of hope throughout the COVID-19 lockdown. With stricter norms and social distancing in place, there was a dire need for a reliable mode of transport that would not just serve the everyday purpose but also keep us safe, and bicycles transformed into the role seamlessly.
A group of cyclists in Karnataka's Bengaluru led the way in redefining this healthier alternative.
Members of 'Relief Riders' were out on the road, during both the phases of the pandemic, delivering essentials, including groceries and medicines to the city's elderly and those under home isolation— free of cost.
The group was recently presented with the 2021 Special Award World Bicycle Day of the United Nations for their initiative and selfless effort in serving the community during a crisis.
"We started out with 10 people on the first day. We wanted to help and with bicycles, we could think of carrying out smaller tasks for the ones in need. We started delivering supplies and by the end of two months, we had more than 80 riders coming to the rescue of more than 250 people in the city," Bengaluru's Bicycle Mayor Sathya Sankaran told The Logical Indian.
When the devastating second wave of COVID-19 hit, the country went haywire. However, the riders continued their endeavour while ensuring that the necessary precautions were taken and protocols were followed.
"We grew to 275 volunteers in Bengaluru during the second phase". By the time, the initiative had steered interest in cyclists from other cities as well.
"Cyclists are often seen as the troublemakers on the road but we were part of the solution and not the problem. Our actions conveyed it. More than 2,000 people were benefitted along with saving tons of carbon emissions because it was on a bicycle. Small steps, bigger impacts," Sankaran added.
He recalled the days when the transmission of the virus was on the rise in the city during the second wave and people were scared to even to step out. The delivery persons were overburdened and stores were short-staffed. He said that the mission was to fill the immediate vacuum and to serve as many people as possible.
"Each delivery was made with utmost care. We moved from spreadsheets to a more organised automated system to record and track the deliveries. Data on the people helped, kilometres covered, the kind of essentials transported, feedback from beneficiaries, and quantifying the environmental impact was done."
"Anyone could raise a request on our Telegram channel or place a call. A back-office team and call handlers would sort, validate and forward the requests to the shoutout room which had all the riders available for the job. The rider nearest to the area of delivery would be tagged and provided with the required information," he added.
With COVID-19 cases peaking, two important aspects were kept in mind while allocating deliveries — the riders should not be all over the city and to ensure they were not allowed back-to-back sorties to reduce their exposure.
The group's tagline 'We carry the supplies and not the virus' worked well with their intention.
Sankaran explained that the tagline instilled confidence in people and also inculcated a sense of responsibility among the riders. He said that the riders diligently followed the protocol whether it was to maintain social distancing or donning the mask.
To fuel his larger vision of revamping the traffic-choked Bengaluru into a green and clean city, the Bicycle Mayor has been building a collective consisting of motivated individuals known as the 'Active Mobility Councillors' and other entities to make active mobility, which includes walking and cycling, an agenda for decision-makers and for the citizens.
Pedal For Change
Called the 'Council For Active Mobility' (CFAM), the group is working towards creating awareness that society is empowered and can contribute to solving the global climate crisis by altering their behaviour. The idea started taking shape with the success of the Relief Riders programme.
Additionally, the group aims to act as a unit, with a pool of resources and knowledge in the field, to aid the governments in the process of transforming the metropolis into a sustainable and liveable space.
In 2019, Bengaluru had topped the list to bag the title of 'Most Traffic Congested City' in the world, beating 415 cities across 57 countries. A year later, however, it occupied sixth place in the annual TomTom Traffic Index.
With reports of companies mulling over putting an end to the work-from-home setup and asking employees to resume working from the office, the traffic congestion is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels.
"Anyone who can further our cause which is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels or make cities more liveable by promoting active mobility solutions can be a part of the council," Sankaran added.
#My15MinCity is the council's first initiative that encourages people to walk/cycle or use public transport to accomplish their task that falls under 15 minutes radius, ie, to shun motorized vehicles for shorter distances.
The council's website asks citizens to take the pledge and to be conscious of their everyday travel decisions since these can have significant environmental impacts.
"We take trips to our neighbourhood for several things. Buy vegetables, get a haircut, purchase medicines, or anything. If we make 10 trips per week and just take three trips by walking and then another three on a bicycle, we are able to accomplish 60 per cent of the trips without a motor vehicle which is a substantial saving.
Results compound when more and more people do it. More than 40 per cent of the emissions are transport-based in major urban cities which is the prime culprit and needs to be tackled," the Bicycle Mayor explained.
Health, Leisure. Why Still Not A Commuting Option?
Answering the question of why cycling has not been able to become a mainstream idea in India, Sankaran said that Indians have been attaching the idea of success with owning a motor vehicle and it does not stop there.
"The bigger the vehicle, the better. Aspirational goals are linked. The idea, however, is very dangerous because the infrastructure then gets built for the vehicles you buy. There is a lack of pride in being sustainable. If anyone asks you about the cycle, you say it is just for health purposes. This is the problem. Also, people do not want ownership in solving the crisis. Somebody else will solve the crisis, I do not have to do it or whatever I do is insignificant is another fallacy. Inadequate infrastructure adds to the existing list of problems," he added.
He pointed out that the need of the hour is a bunch of courageous changemakers who are going to put themselves out and lead by example.
"It's time to pull up our socks because climate change is a reality. We cannot delay the actions. India is going to be hit the hardest since the population is going to grow and consumption will be five times higher. We need to make judicious use of the resources and maximize the use of existing infrastructure.
We can put six bicycles in the place of a car. If just 20 per cent of the city's population switches to cycling, imagine the space that can be saved and the pollution that can be reduced. Carbon emission and wastage need to be controlled. We need to protect the green spaces and not overcrowd them, hence we need the council that can make plans and engages the community especially youngsters to drive the change," Sankaran stated.
Who Is A Bicycle Mayor?
The concept of 'bicycle mayor' belongs to the programme run by BYCS, an Amsterdam-based social enterprise aiming to fulfill the 50/30 goal. In simpler terms, it is to get to have 50 per cent of all city trips on bicycles by 2030 thus conserving the environment and bringing a change in social mindset.
Bicycle Mayor is an appointed individual entrusted with the task of coordinating between the cyclists, the community, government, and nonprofits organisations to attain the goal. Currently, there are seven Bicycle Mayors in India.