Indian City Says No To Bicycles

Oct 10, 2013
Originally published on October 3, 2013 3:19 pm

At a time when many American cities are encouraging people to peddle to work, bikes and other non-motorized vehicles are being banned from the streets of Kolkata, India (also known as Calcutta).

Police say the narrow and congested roads are just too crowded with cars, trucks and buses, so the bikes have to go. But many cyclists are balking at the ban and are still using their bicycles to commute.


  • Rahul Tandon, correspondent for the BBC. He tweets @rishavtandon.
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Let's check in in Calcutta because the city has largely banned bikes, a city with more than two and a half million bike trips every day, more bikes than cars. So how is this going? The BBC's Rahul Tandon joins us from Calcutta, India. Rahul, why did this happen?

RAHUL TANDON: Well, the police, Robin, said very simply that in a city like Calcutta - I'm on a pretty busy street at the moment as a scooter just goes past me - that there really isn't enough space for all the different types of vehicles that there are in Calcutta. And there's many. From hand-pulled rickshaws to rickety buses to auto rickshaws, you name it. Even a few animals like to cross the roads all of a sudden. There just is not space for them in this city.

And so they decided that it's the cyclists who are going to have to go. So they've being banned from 174 major routes in this city during the daytime. Basically, they're being told, get off your bike and use something else instead. I've been speaking to the traffic commissioner of police here, Mr. Adak, and he told me why this ban have come into place.

DILIP KUMAR ADAK: As there is very small spaces for traffic movement, we banned the cycles for movement in main thoroughfares only. If we allow all the cyclists to move main thoroughfare, then it definitely raise the accidents.

YOUNG: Well, Rahul, first of all, how's it working because I feel - I'm hearing the occasional bicycle bell ring behind you?

TANDON: Yeah. I think you're hearing more than the occasional one ringing. I can just see a cyclist. He is just going to go past me now. Look, as you said, there's two and a half million cyclists here. The police have started to fine many cyclists in this city, and they have said to them that, look, you know, if you continue to do this, we're going to take your cycles off you.

But with so many people needing to cycle, you know, it's part of their living here from a (unintelligible) a milkman, to a paperboy, to - even many policemen actually have to go to work on cycles themselves. It seems impossible to try and stop everybody from actually getting on to the main roads. I've been speaking to people from within the cycling community here. As you can hear now, they're pretty adamant. They're not going to get off their bikes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you're asking the auto rickshaws to, you know, run on gas, then why are you stopping cycles? Why are you stopping cycles?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: As far as our safety is concerned, I think they can always conduct awareness program to spread the message that wear a helmet, stick to your lane, don't jump the lights. And I somehow feel that people who ride their bikes are overcautious than the people who drive their cars.

TANDON: Are you going to get of your bike now or you're going to continue to be on it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I will continue. So I'm no way going to give it up, even if we get held up, be put in the cooler - well, good.

TANDON: How many bikers are they going to take off the street, how many? Because there are just too many people riding bicycles in Calcutta.

YOUNG: Well, so they're saying they're not going to abide by the ban. We're hearing, Rahul, that they're not. We can hear some cyclists behind you. In addition, though, to the danger and the fact that there's just not enough road space for everyone, isn't pollution a big problem? I mean wouldn't - why wouldn't the city ban some of the cars?

TANDON: That is a question that many of the cyclists are asking here, and they say that basically politically, you know, it was not possible to ban cars in this city because it just wouldn't go down well with many people here. Cars are very aspirational part of life here in India at the moment. But you're absolutely right about pollution in Calcutta. This is probably the most polluted city here in India.

And here's the contradiction in terms at the moment. You have India's oil minister basically saying to people, please don't drive your cars so much. Try and use buses. And if you can, use cycles to get around because we want to cut down on the amount of oil that we're importing into India because, you know, the deficit is getting bigger and bigger and bigger here.

On the other hand, you have a city like Calcutta basically telling people exactly the opposite of that. So there's a real contradictory message here. And in many cities in India - OK, a few dogs now barking about the cycling ban as well - you will find in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, they're trying to actually build cycling tracks and get people onto cycles. The problem in Calcutta is it probably has the most narrow roads here in India.

And the police seem to be at quite a loss of what to do to try and control the traffic here. If they don't do something, in 10 years' time you won't need a car. You won't need a bicycle. The only way you'll be able to get around Calcutta is to walk.

YOUNG: That's the BBC's Rahul Tandon in Calcutta, India, just banned bikes on some of the - many of the city's streets there. Rahul, thanks so much.

TANDON: Thank you very much, Robin.

YOUNG: And we want to bring you up to date now on a breaking news story from Washington that we're following. Capitol Hill on lockdown right now after multiple gunshots reported. A reporter on the scene inside the Capitol telling us police officers were shot. The gunshots were outside of the Capitol. Police are swarming the area. We will keep following this. Stay tuned to NPR for the latest. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.