The humble Bicycle – ideal solution to fuel woes | Sunday Observer

The humble Bicycle – ideal solution to fuel woes

3 July, 2022

Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented fuel crisis, with long lines of vehicles forming near filling stations all over the country. The shortage is so acute that only Essential Services vehicles are being provided with fuel at least until July 10. Suddenly, we have realized that we need to move away from vehicles that burn so-called fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel which we do not manufacture and have to import at a great cost to the economy - literally. It is thus never too late to turn to alternative modes of transport that do not require petroleum at all.

From another perspective, the world is being literally choked by traffic and the associated smog and pollution. The rise of the private car has contributed heavily to global warming, which would have disastrous consequences by the turn of the century for the entire world if it goes unchecked.

Viable solutions

But all hope is not lost as there are many viable solutions in sight. The electric car is one solution (though it will not solve the problem of traffic per se) and enhancing public transport is another. The trick here is to get more car owners to switch to public transport by offering a faster, more comfortable ride to the city or another destination of their choice. Renewable energy is one other alternative. Just imagine the fossil fuel savings if all the thermal power plants can be replaced with wind and solar.

But there are two modes of transport that do not require any external energy at all – walking and cycling. Both are good for the body as well as the mind, being vigorous forms of exercise. But one cannot walk for more than a few kilometres, especially, in a big city, which leaves cycling as an option or alternative to the car over medium distances.

The world recently focused on this somewhat old form of transport on World Bicycle Day which fell on June 3. The bicycle has come a long way since its invention exactly 205 years ago (June 12, 1817) by the German aristocrat Baron Karl Von Drais. Since then, there have been many innovations in the field of cycling. Today’s modern bicycles are lightweight, aerodynamic and multiple-geared to tackle even steep inclines. Bicycles are by far the cheapest mode of transport available – even the poor can generally afford to buy one, though the soaring demand for bicycles in the wake of the current fuel crisis here has pushed their prices to somewhat high levels.

Majority of citizens

The mobility needs of people who walk and cycle – often the majority of citizens in a given city – continue to be overlooked, states Share the Road Program’s Annual Report 2018, even though the benefits of investing in pedestrians and cyclists can save lives, help protect the environment and support poverty reduction. Meeting the needs of people who walk and cycle continues to be a critical part of the mobility solution for helping cities decouple population growth from increased emissions, and improve air quality and road safety.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), safe infrastructure for walking and cycling is also a pathway for achieving greater health for any nation. For the poorest urban sector who often cannot afford private vehicles, walking and cycling can provide a form of transport while reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, diabetes, and even death.

There are many reasons to celebrate the bicycle. According to the WHO, it is a simple, affordable, reliable, clean and environmentally fit sustainable means of transportation; The bicycle can serve as a tool for development and as a means not just of transport but also of access to education, health care and sport; The synergy between the bicycle and the user fosters creativity and social engagement and gives the user an immediate awareness of the local environment; The bicycle is a symbol of sustainable transport and conveys a positive message to foster sustainable consumption and production, and has a positive impact on climate.

Multiple benefits

The United Nations encourages Member States to: devote particular attention to the bicycle in cross-cutting development strategies and to include the bicycle in international, regional, national and sub-national development policies and programs; improve road safety and integrate it into sustainable mobility and transport infrastructure planning and design, through policies and measures to actively protect and promote pedestrian safety and cycling mobility; promote the bicycle among all members of society, and organise bicycle rides at national and local levels as a means of strengthening physical and mental health and well-being and developing a culture of cycling in society.

Many countries now have policies which actively promote cycling to school, work and other activities, such as, dedicated bicycle lanes, free secure parking and better signposting for cyclists. Many cities also have cycle stands where one can rent bicycles and e-bicycles (cycles with a small electric motor attached, for easier hill climbing) for a small fee using a smartphone app. Once the trip is over, the user goes to a similar bicycle stand and locks it.

Common sight

Our love affair with the private car has nearly obliterated the bicycle from our streets, with only the poorest segments of society and professional racing cyclists using bicycles, though this is changing in the face of the fuel crisis. There have been reports of professionals, diplomats and academics using bicycles to get to work, though it is too much to expect our Members of Parliament and Ministers to give up their gas-guzzlingV8 SUVs and ride the humble bicycle instead. This is however, a common sight in many advanced economies where even Prime Ministers ride bicycles. Several Ministers including Transport Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena have urged all citizens to use the bicycle often for short journeys.

Bicycle use is much higher in rural areas of Sri Lanka than in urban areas (schoolchildren in uniform can be seen riding to and from school in these areas), but regardless of area, cycling remains a highly dangerous form of transport here as other road users have little or no regard for cyclists (and also pedestrians). Frankly, drivers of tippers and prime movers sit so high that they cannot even see a passing cyclist or motorcyclist.

Another inhibiting factor is that there are no proper cycle lanes anywhere in the country, save for some of the jogging tracks in main cities which have an adjoining cycle lane. Cycle lanes in the main cities are an established feature in many other countries, especially developed ones. The most bike-friendly cities in the world are Copenhagen (Denmark), Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Montreal (Canada). All these countries have an excellent cycling infrastructure that Sri Lanka and other developing countries should strive to emulate.

Need to study

Sri Lankan authorities should indeed study how countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark have created such a strong cycling culture. Their capitals, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are regarded as the most cycle-friendly cities in the world. Amsterdam alone has 515 km of dedicated cycle lanes. There are actually more push bikes than people – 22.8 million bikes or about 1.33 bikes per person in Amsterdam. It has even converted many roads to car-free zones to allow access to only cyclists, pedestrians and sometimes trams. (That is unfortunately another victim of development here – we could have saved a lot of fuel if the trams still existed in Colombo).

Amsterdam has designed its roads to be “bike first, car second” – now only about 24 percent of all trips in the City are done by private car or taxi. In fact, some publications are already debating how cyclists and driverless cars will co-exist in Amsterdam and other bike-friendly cities in the future. However, it will not be possible to ‘import’ all these features to developing countries which still have an obsession with private cars, but a start has to be made somewhere. In Asia, bicycles still rule the roost in many rural areas. Countries such as China have a cycling culture, though most people there have moved on to cars after the economy opened up.

While our law enforcement authorities are very strict on the helmet policy for motorcyclists, there is no such law for cyclists, which means they have a far greater chance of getting injured or killed in a road accident. The use of helmets must be made mandatory in Sri Lanka for cyclists regardless of age. They must be made affordable and Sri Lankan companies could manufacture them to save precious foreign exchange.

Smart mobility choice

The bicycle is certainly back with a bang and increasingly looks like the smart mobility choice for the future. From lightweight construction materials, new tire technology, new gearing systems, integration with Google Maps, better lighting systems and unobtrusive electric motors, the bicycle too is changing for the better – even many car makers are now making advanced bicycles.

These still cost a pretty penny, but prices would come down in due course. Still, our roads are highly dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, but a change of attitudes, a shift towards more public transport and new traffic management solutions could make the bicycle a more viable option for one-way journeys of less than 50 Km at least. Ancient but paradoxically modern at the same time, the bicycle could yet be the answer to our transport and fuel woes.