Can we reimagine ways in which the humble bicycle can improve mobility for older women?
India’s heaving metropolises are simply not designed for women. The focus on multi-lane highways and flyovers ignores women—and the differently abled and elderly. The metro rail does provide a speedy commute; what’s lacking is last-mile connectivity and affordability (HT PHOTO)
As she wheels her cycle out to get to work, Tara ignores the sniggers from neighbours in the densely populated locality of Delhi’s Neb Sarai where she lives. “Is this any age to be on a cycle?” they scoff.
The 40-year-old mother of two, who uses only one name, really couldn’t care. The cycle is her ticket to employment and the wife of an autorickshaw driver certainly needs the extra income.
The cycle means she no longer has to walk two km each way to get to work as a part-time cleaner. It means she doesn’t have to waste time waiting for buses that don’t always stop. It means she no longer gets yelled at by her employers for being late, again.
“Managing my time has become easier,” says Tara who was gifted a cycle last year by Greenpeace India under a scheme, Power the Pedal, designed to both improve mobility among low-income, marginalized women and promote cleaner environment.
The bicycle has long established its cred for gender empowerment. In 2006, when Bihar became the first state to fund cycles for girls in secondary school, enrolment shot up by 32%. With more girls in school, there was a corresponding fall in early marriage and pregnancy.
The Bihari model has now been adopted in some form in states from Assam to Rajasthan. Seven African nations, starting with Zambia, have a version of it.
Now, a group of people are asking: Can we reimagine ways in which the humble bicycle can improve mobility for older women?
It’s an important question. Increased mobility leads to more inclusive cities, ones where women can participate more fully in the workforce. And it’s a win-win; a recent study by TERI estimated that if bicycles were to replace two and four wheelers for shorter commutes, it can result in an annual benefit of ₹1.8 trillion.
India’s heaving metropolises are simply not designed for women. The focus on multi-lane highways and flyovers ignores women — and the differently abled and elderly. The metro rail does provide a speedy commute; what’s lacking is last-mile connectivity and affordability.
The Delhi government’s bus fare waiver to women passengers since 2019 is welcome. But, says Tara, bus drivers don’t always stop especially when they see a bunch of (non-paying) women passengers. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted about this recently and said drivers will face “severe action” for not stopping for women.
Research tells us men and women access public transport in different ways. Men tend to commute longer distances, usually point-to-point, to work and back. Women choose to walk if the distances are shorter or, when they use public transport, do so for more frequent, shorter trips that combine multiple tasks like going to the market before picking up the kids from school.
“We need to change the way we are developing city infrastructures,” says Avinash Chanchal, campaign manager for Greenpeace India.
Since it launched Power the Pedal early in 2022, Greenpeace India has distributed 800 cycles in Delhi and Bengaluru. In Kerala, women from Kudumbashree, the women’s collective that celebrates 50 years this year, will be training to commute to work on cycles. In Odisha, the government has announced that it will be giving out bicycles to women’s self-help groups.
The cycle is a starting point in a long journey of questions. The old cliché about teaching a man to fish certainly holds true for teaching a woman to cycle. It not only literally frees her from home, it frees her to exercise agency.
At a basement in Neb Sarai, Tara meets other beneficiaries of the scheme every month. From safer roads and the need for dedicated cycle tracks; from concerns about water and electricity to their childrens’ education, everything is up for discussion.
And, yes, many voice their annoyance about the comments they have to hear while cycling to work. But, laughs Tara, “It’s keeping me fit and healthy.” Who can argue with that?
Namita Bhandare writes on gender.
The views expressed are personal