Wearing a bright red t-shirt, Sathya Sankaran makes a most conspicuous arrival on his cycle. The passionate ativist and champion for non-motorised transport is now the city’s first Bicycle Mayor, driven as he is towards creating a safer city for cyclists, spreading awareness on the benefits of cycling everyday, the many shortcomings of motorised transport and working with policy-makers to create cycle-friendly infrastructure. With India racking up a tally of one road death every four minutes, most of which are caused by speeding and roads unable to contain the growing numbers of motorbikes and cars and high pollution levels, it’s time now to move definitely towards non-motorised and public transport, Sathya tells Nischith N.
Bengaluru might be one of the most chaotic cities in the country but if there’s one thing to be said for its people: We really do try to make it a better place. The focus is shifting slowly from expressways and flyovers to pedestrian friendly zones, cycle lanes and a more sustainable way of life. Sathya Sankaran, the 42 year old social activist who arrives on his cycle, epitomises all these principles: He is Bengaluru’s first Bicycle Mayor, entrusted with working towards making the city safe for cyclists. As more and more people turn to cycling as a healthy, environment-friendly mode of transport, it’s imperative that urban planning grows to accommodate them. In India, taking a cycle out on the main road is still something of a death wish, for few people stay in their lanes.The numbers are jarring: There is one death on the road every four minutes in India, with over 60 percent of all road accidents and fatalities cauesd by speeding. 25% of these fatalities involve motorcycles, expalains Sathya.
A passionate social activist and cyclist, the city’s non-motorised transit champion, is deeply inspired by the culture of cycling and its implications for urban health. A sustainable mobility activist, he has worked with various NGOs on a number of p ublic transport campaigns. Now, having been involved in the civic intervention space for over 10 years, Sathya looks at cycling as a mode to change the urban landscape. “I haven't heard anyone saying they won't come out in a car? Motor vehicles allow you to go faster but are also a leading cause of death. 66.5% of all road accidents and 61% of fatalities are because of speeding. 25% of these fatalities are motorbikes,” he remarks. Sathya is the co-founder of the NGO Prajaa, which deals with civic interventions in Bengaluru and is also the founder of Citizens for Sustainability, which focuses on technology and infrastructure. “For every mile travelled, various studies have put the risk of fatalities on a motorbike to be 30 to 35 times greater than a car. Yet Bengaluru has 500% more two-wheelers than cars,” he explains. In fact, the highest-ever sale of two-wheelers in the country is in 2018 and two-crore vehicles have been sold so far. “People don’t usually stop to think of safety before they buy a scooter or a bike. They just buy a helmet. Even if you’re learning how to drive, you start slow, on a quiet street, before you enter thick traffic. All this is to ensure safety on the road. Similarly, it's important to learn bike handling skills in your neighbourhood and get comfortable with your bike before getting into thick traffic. This will help with the fears” Sathya added.
The Bicycle Mayor is an honorary two-year position, part of a global programme envisioned by Amsterdam-based NGO ByCS, which aims to ensure that 50% of the transport in cities is made up of bicycles by 2030. In India, the project is being implemented in coordination with the NGO Evangelical Social Action Forum (ESAF). Sathya also recalls his childhood which made him depend more on a bicycle today and he says, “My parent's generation and the ones before relied on a bicycle extensively. Motor vehicles have entered India in a big way only in the last three decades. I cycled till was in college and gave it up for a car when I started work. It's only when I started getting health problems 6 years ago that I started cycling to work.” Mr Sathya has also planned to launch a campaign for vehicle users, which will aim to spread awareness about sharing the road with cyclists. Cycle Day, an open street event conducted by local neighbourhoods to reclaim the streets of Bengaluru, is one of his concept too. Creating empathy, atleast within the locality, makes short commuters slightly safer. Meanwhile, cycling infrasctructure entails significant investment on the part of the government and it doesn’t generate commensurate revenue. “Sustainability isn’t an economically tempting choice,” Sathya admits, “But it is the right choice, nevertheless.” In another bid for awareness, Sathya also launched the #CycleToWork challenge. This encourages people to sign up at a website and do their bit for the environment. Workplace amenities like safe parking and provisions to change and shower will go a long way too, in encouraging people to take their cycles out each day.
A national-level approach is what Sathya has in mind for his idea. “Bicycling and non-motorised transport is a state subject. It’s important for local municipal bodies and the state government to encourage industry and implement policies that support cycling. Infrastructure facilities are crucial.” The two major dangers for cyclists, he says, are speeding vehicles and junctions. “Municipal corporations need to protect cyclists on high-speed corridors and maybe give them priority along with pedestrians at traffic junctions. Cycle stands in public spaces will help commerce and ret ail.” Various initiatives have sprung up across the city, with one popular introduction by app-based cab aggregators, to introduce cycling as a means of transport. Public transport should be the backbone of a large city’s transportation needs and should carry close to 60% of the pouplation, followed by non-motorised transport at 30 per cent. “Ideally, I want Bengalureans to feel fearless on their roads. And the first step towards this is a policy of safety for cyclists. We need to reduce encroachment of footpaths first. We will reach out to people then and promote the use of cycles for short commutes. We have to learn to make the cycle our primary mode of transport,” he smiles.
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