The Muncipal Corporations of Vijayawada and Visakhapatnam are promoting bicycle use in an effort to reduce vehicular pollution and traffic congestion. Visakhapatnam has apparently introduced 'no motor vehicle' zones across 20 km of roads and plans to earmark cycling tracks on 100-feet roads to a width of about 8 feet in the central parts of the city. While these are laudable social and communitarian initiatives, its economic, and even environmental, benefits are questionable.
Here are a few observations
1. Bicycle use can reduce pollution and traffic congestion only if they displace other modes of transport in significant numbers. It is inconceivable, given Indian conditions, that car users will switch to bicycles, except maybe in small enclaves. Given the large commute distances involved, motorbike users are also likely to stay on with their vehicles. The sheer volume of road users in the larger Indian cities means that the impact on public transport due to bicycle users may be minimal.
2. While bicycles will certainly take that many people away from public transport (and to that extent reduce the demand for public transport), I am not sure whether it necessarily reduces traffic congestion nor is economically more efficient. For sure bicycles do not suffer from carbon emissions. But they take up more road space than public transport. If you have any doubt see this. Further, since bicycle commuters spend more time on roads than those using public transport over the same distance, the effective road space usage by bicycle users is much larger.
3. It is on grounds of economic efficiency that bicycles fail most glaringly, especially for Indian conditions. Most of the larger Indian cities are pretty expansive compared to the mid-sized European cities where bicycles are popular. Average commute distances are large enough to make bicycling unattractive. Weather is pretty harsh for most part of the year. In the circumstances, commuting to work, as opposed to taking public transport, increases the unproductive time spent on the road and takes its toll on productivity.
4. Earmarked bicycle lanes involve a trade-off on road space. That much road space becomes unavailable for all the other modes of transport. Any such earmarking can be effective only if we are able to displace enough motor vehicles (by making them switch over to bicycles) to make up for the loss in road space to bicycle lanes. However, as the aforementioned arguements suggest, this may not happen. In any case, given that most roads are narrow in our cities, it may not be practical to do such ear-marking in any meaningful scale.
In fact, if all the aforementioned assumptions hold true, then earmarked bicycle lanes would end up worsening traffic congestion. The effective road space usage per commuter will be higher with bicycle users. Average speeds will be reduced and fuel consumption will increase. Contrary to conventional wisdom, vehicular pollution will increase.
5. Bicycle lanes and promotional activities cannot succeed in a piecemeal manner over small road stretches. If the commuter has to travel the major length of his daily commute to work on mixed traffic, the marginal utility of any limited earmarking is likely to be minimal. However, it is possible that there are small stretches or surroundings which enclose both people's homes and their workplaces.
6. There is also the issue of traffic discipline and enforceability of bicycle lanes. In a country where regular motor vehicle lane driving and traffic discipline is the exception than norm, it may be a nightmare to enforce bicycle lanes. Unless there are physical barriers, it may not be possible to even keep motor vehicles out of these lanes. Similar lack of discipline among bicycle users could end up increasing accidents and lowering traffic speeds.
7. Finally, bicycle promotional policies should not be confused with pedestrianization programs. There is a compelling case for making certain areas, especially commercial and shopping centers, in many cities "motor vehicle free zones" for certain time periods daily, atleast during the night. Similar restrictions can be imposed on river and seaside roads so as to improve the quality of leisure environments. Bicycle usage promotion could go hand in hand with such pedestrianization programs. However, such programs are most likely to be predominantly pedestrianization programs where bicycle usage happens to be an incidental benefit.
I strongly believe that urban policy makers should instead spend their scarce energies and resources on improving transport infrastructure and public transport facilities.