Coronavirus pandemic offers hope for cycling futureMore bicycles on the streets will mean the pressure on the government to invest on cycling-friendly infrastructure including repairing potholes will grow.
One of the first things Yogendra Ranjitkar did after Nepal went into lockdown on March 24 was he dusted off his bicycle. “It had remained unused in the corner of the dark storeroom,” said the 46-year-old music teacher from Maitidevi. “I stopped riding the bicycle when I was 25. I find Kathmandu a very dangerous place for bicycle users. I never thought I would be pedalling around the city again.”
Since the beginning of Covid-19 crisis in March, the humble bicycle has become a boon for the Ranjitkar family.
Ranjitkar has also bought a new bicycle for his 11-year-old daughter, Sasu. It cost him RS 45,000.
“I couldn't find any cheaper bicycle as there is such a demand and therefore a shortage in the market,” said Ranjitkar.
A growing number of people in Kathmandu are using bicycles as an alternative to public transportation with the spread of Covid-19.
Bicycles have long been popular in Nepal’s plains. But with the pandemic and disruption in public transportation with the odd-even rule for motorised transport, its popularity has soared elsewhere.
“I had no option but to buy a bicycle as even during lockdown my office remained open,” said said Ram Hari Karki, 33, who works in an insurance company in New Baneshwor, who cycles to work from his home at Samakhusi every day.
According to Nepal Cycle Society, a cycling advocacy organisation, over 45,000 new cyclists have been added in Kathmandu after the lockdown started in March and there are now over 100,000 cyclists in Kathmandu Valley now.
Cycling enthusiasts are excited about this sudden rise in the number of cycle users that they hope this could be instrumental in forcing the government to spend on infrastructure to promote cycling.
“This is an ideal time to promote cycling in Nepal,” said environmentalist Bhusan Tuladhar, who himself has been promoting and pressuring the government to construct cycle friendly infrastructure in the country. “Cycling has been taken up throughout the globe due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.”
The 2011 census data shows 32.38 percent of households have bicycles. In urban areas 29.95 percent people own bicycles.
“People from all economic classes can afford to buy bicycles, and the trend is up, this is really good for the environment,” said Tuladhar.
Although cycling may have been seen as a poor man’s transport, that is not the case now.
“I have a car and motorcycle at home but I have hardly been using them since the pandemic. I cycle much more now,” said Dr Pawan Sharma, 59, a gynecologist at Patan Academy of Health Sciences.
“Besides health benefits, cyclists are also contributing to a cleaner environment. All those who ride on four wheels and motorcycles should respect cyclists for this contribution,” said Sharma , who is also an active member of the cycle club in the Patan Hospital.
Amid the pandemic there is the added benefit of safety. Doctors say commuting on cycle could play an important role in breaking the coronavirus transmission chain.
“Commuting on public vehicles is very dangerous at a time of Covid-19. You can’t maintain social distancing but cycling helps one to remain safe from infection,” said Dr. Sher Bahadur Pun, a virologist at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, Teku. “Unlike motorbikes and cars one cannot give a lift on a bicycle.”
Around the country, cycling has become popular for a few years now.
Since India’s economic blockade in 2015 that caused a crippling shortage of petroleum products, there has been a steady increase in bicycle use. According to the Department of Customs, Nepal imported bikes worth Rs801.3 milli in the fiscal year 2015-16. In the fiscal year 2018-19, this figure stood at Rs 1.5 billion.
Laxmi Shrestha, 51, a freelance photojournalist from Mangal Bazar, has been cycling for the past two years.
More than 20 women in my locality recently bought cycles after the pandemic started,” she said. “Ten of them work at the same office and they cycle in a group to work.”
But she has a complaint that is familiar among bicycle enthusiasts — there are no cycling lanes on the Valleys roads and they are full of potholes .
Ratna Shrestha, founder and president of the Nepal Cycle Society, said that it is the right time for the government and local bodies of Kathmandu Valley to invest in cycle lanes.
On average, a person commutes around 10 km in a day in Kathmandu Valley and the distance is ideal for cycling which has an average speed 14km an hour.
There have indeed been some efforts by local governments to make their cities bicycle friendly. But Shrestha and many other people who have long been into promoting cycles say it’s not adequate.
Lalitpur Metropolitan City made the Valley’s first dedicated cycle lanes from Kupondole to Mangal Bazar in November 2019, a distance of 4.7 kilometres. The city also tried to pass New Cycle Law 2020 to guarantee cyclists’ welfare but it failed.
Kathmandu Metropolitan City too announced plans to make a cycle lane on the 3.1 kilometre stretch from Maitighar to Tinkune but nothing has come of it. In June Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya, as part of his annual plans and policy, announced subsidies for his staff to buy bicycles.
But cycling enthusiasts criticised him for not making a single cycle-friendly lane in his three years tenure.
“Announcements are only limited in plans and seminars,” said Shrestha.
He, however, is optimistic about the future of cycling as a culture, as more and more urban youths have adopted cycling culture in the Valley and other cities like Chitwan, Pokhara, Dharan and other major city areas.
Besides the lack of cycle lanes, there is also the problem of roads being unsafe for cyclists.
The death of cyclist Shyam Sundar Shreshta, 38, on October 27, 2018, after his bicycle fell into an open sewer in Kirtipur made headlines. Nine years ago, Prahlad Yonzon, one of Nepal’s leading conservationists, was killed in a hit-and-run accident while cycling on the Ring Road, near Kalanki.
The powerful beam of headlights of vehicles at night also makes cycling dangerous.
“The number of cyclists has increased but our road infrastructure is not safe,” said SSP Bhim Prasad Dhakal, chief of the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division. “Unlike motorbikes and four wheelers, we hardly get reports of cyclists being involved in accidents with other forms of transport, but we have been getting complaints from cyclists falling in drains and open manholes at night.”
Despite the government's indifferencence, cycle activists have not given up hope.
“With the outbreak of Covid-19, people have taken to cycling for health concerns, and slowly this will become a habit among people and a trend will be set,” said Shreshta. “Such a development will put pressure on the government to work on cycle-friendly infrastructure.”
Professional musician Ranjitkar knows that the Covid-19 has hit all hard and there are problems for easy and safe mobility.
“One thing will surely change because many people will now start to ride bicycles as this is the safest mode of transportation in these unsafe times, “ he said. “But the government now must think of making roads safe for cyclists.”