In Bangladesh, different organisations have just observed the World Car Free Day on September 22. Talking to different youth led bicyclist forum, Nasir Uz Zaman reports on their timely demand for a bicycle lane and other issues related to sustainable transport system
GLOBALLY activists from different fronts, particularly green activists campaigning for divestment from fossil fuel have been advocating for cycling infrastructure to ensure sustainable mobility. In some cases, the state considered economic incentive for bicycle use. In many of the European countries, different forms of economic scheme are available to promote bicycle use. In the tiny landlocked country of Luxembourg, sandwiched between France, Germany and Belgium, employees can take advantage of a $340 tax rebate to be used to buy a bicycle. In the UK, the Cycle to Work scheme operates a lease-to-own model allowing employees to get discounted bikes and equipment through their employer. In Netherlands, popularly known as the bicycle nation, cyclists can claim €0.19 from their employer for every kilometre they pedal to the office. These policy level decisions to provide economic incentive was made to reduce dependency on car, a major contributor of global carbon dioxide emission. The global turn towards bicycle use, although in a limited scale, complements’ its move towards renewable energy and sustainable living.
In the context of Bangladesh, the policy level move to acknowledge the role of bicycle in cutting down air and sound pollution and reduce dependency on car, remains a rhetoric. It is limited to the symbolic celebration of World Car Free day or periodic observance of car free road or zone. To break this policy level silence on the use of bicycle, different youth forums of bicyclists have been working for the last couple of years. They are persistently making this timely demand for bicycle lane in urban areas.
BDCyclists, a community based social network primarily based in Dhaka, has around 1,27,000 members that operates largely through a closed Facebook group and a public page. BDCyclists advocates for cycle use with the hope to reduce pollution, improve traffic situation in the city and promote a healthy, active lifestyle.
Fuad Ahasan Chowdhury, the moderator of the Facebook page told New Age Youth, the group started with just a few members in 2011. The early members used to use cycle for local commuting to save their time, but public interest in the group, particularly among the youth gave it the current shape. In addition to promoting bicycle as alternative to car, the platform today also provide training for the beginners and other kind of rides.
While sharing the story of BDCyclists, Fuad emphasised on how cycling could radically improve the traffic situation in the capital. According to a Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology report, traffic congestion eats up five million productive working hours. Moreover, according to Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority, around 7 lakh motorbikes and 2.87 lakh private cars are running on the streets of the capital and 40 new cars are added every day. In this city of 17 million people, about 70 per cent streets are occupied by cars. It shows, the absolute dependency on car, motorised transport are neither spatially, nor environmentally sustainable. Fuad hopes that at least some per cent of this large population would start cycling to ease present traffic congestion. BDCyclists has an aim to influence the people who can afford cars, but avoid it for their own, others benefit’.
The president of Female Cyclers of Bangladesh, Sefat E Kaniz Harun echoes what Fuad had said about the contribution of bicycle use to sustainable mobility, but emphasised the negative impact of excessive dependency of car/motorised vehicle. According to the Air Quality Index (2019), Dhaka was ranked the second worst in the world. Dhaka is also ranked third in the World Health Organisation’s 2019 list of most polluted cities of the world. The large number of vehicles in the streets of Dhaka is blamed for the situation.
Sefat encourages cycling for local commuting to the fore as it produce no meaningful pollution. She adds another important point relevant for most women commuter in Dhaka. From her experience of cycling, she adds, choosing cycling woman could move about freely, independently and avoid the everyday experience of sexual harassment in public transport. According to Sefat, it is hard to find a woman who is not a victim of sexual harassment while commuting in city buses.
Sanchita Barman, a student of University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh agrees with Sifat, ‘It is a regular scenario that women commuters are hassled by conductors or drivers. Sometimes women are stopped from riding a bus on false excuses like, there is no seat.’ She also added, ‘bicycle for local commuting not only save time, but also cost effective. It is quite impossible for a student to spend around Tk 200 to 300 for everyday local commuting. Realising the issues, her parents suggested her to use cycle.’ She acknowledges that the city street are not friendly towards women bicyclist on the road, but she believes the only way to improve the situation is by encouraging more women to ride bicycle.
Her rings true to computer-aided design specialist Ayesha Siddika, she agrees that the city street is yet to become friendly towards women bicyclist, but with more women on bicycle things have change. To prove her point she shares an experience when one she was taunted by a vendor for cycling. Another vendor immediately told the vendor who taunted her, ‘It is normal today and there is nothing wrong about their [women] cycling.’ Ayesha affirms that she is unmoved by the biased public perception, ‘Using a bicycle for commuting can help one to lose weight and improve overall health. I am a patient of asthma and cycling helps to ease the sufferings. It is my first priority that I am doing it for myself.’
If one compares between automobiles and bicycles for local commuting, says a former student of University of Dhaka Bandhan Dey, one would immediately recognise the benefit and convenience that comes with the use of bicycle. It is easier to buy a new bicycle than a new automobile. It is easy and cheaper to maintain. He refers to the state-level initiatives to promote cycling in other countries like Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, China and many more. In his words, ‘Our policy makers should take effective steps to promote cycling for better future of the city. Our government could provide incentives to local bicycle industries to make cycles more available in low cost. The streets’ condition is not bicycle friendly and the cycle lane is absent here. Moreover, there is severe lack of parking spots. It is sad that we do not see policy makers’ interest in sustainable mode of transport.’
Considering the issues of environmental pollution and traffic congestion, the policy makers are talking about making the streets bicycle-friendly, but these are only at the rhetorical level, as mentioned earlier. From the BDCyclists platform, as Fuad reveals, they went to several institutions to talk about designated spots for bicycle parking and also attended some round-table meetings with government officials to discuss their demand for bicycle lane and other related issues. It seems that policy makers are not very keen to structurally include bicycle into our transport system. They have more interest in the mega projects which costs a large amount of money. Fuad emphasised, government steps to promote cycling would bring about more effective social and cultural change.
Cycling is a habit which is connected with social and cultural practices. According to Fuad, one of the successes of BDCyclists is to increase acceptability of cycling among different classes of people. It is however not easy to bring a cultural change. To bring a cultural change and to get more benefits from cycling, more people have to be involved in cycling for local commute. To make that change to happen, the policy makers or the government need to adopt strategies and take effective initiatives to promote cycling for a sustainable living that will ease our traffic congestion and prevent further environmental pollution.
Nasir Uz Zaman is a member of the New Age Youth team
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