For years my commute in whichever part of the world I have been in, has been by public transit. Even on holidays, I use public transit. You can actually manage to figure it out ahead of time (the Internet is a wonderful thing!). But somehow I hadn’t really thought about cycling as a commute option, not since college anyway!
Back in the saddle
After the 2020 lockdown in India, as things opened, everyone was afraid to use public transit. So when I resumed my morning workout schedule, I found myself taking the two-wheeler daily. After a couple of months, I decided that this could not be the answer. Luckily a friend loaned me a cycle and as we went into the new year, I was back in the saddle.
The first few days were tough - I was wobbly on the cycle, nervous of dogs, the occasional vehicle passing by, of taking right turns and of course I had to get used to the hard cycle seat. Then I started noticing other things. I was starting out at 5.30 a.m and as I crossed the river, the first streaks of orange would emerge on the east. Each day would be a new pattern, a new hue. As the weeks passed I could see small changes in the location, colour palettes, timing of the sunrise and sunset. A fascinating canvas marking the changing seasons - from the cooler winter (or what passes for winter in Madras) to the hot and humid summer.
There is a saying about stopping and smelling the roses. My route perforce takes me through a well wooded area (some old English era bungalows with a lot of wild garden space around them) and as I cycle by I can feel a distinct drop in temperature, at least a degree or two. It’s amazing how a few trees can make a difference. On this road, early in the morning, one can hear more than just the crows; there are owls, an occasional treepie and perhaps even a woodpecker. I got to know the street dogs too. The black one who sits every morning almost in the middle of the road, with one ear at attention, but with casually crossed front legs. I don’t know what he is looking out for, but it was soon clear he wasn’t interested in the traffic; certainly he didn’t even bat an eyelid at cyclists going by. There were the ocasional, slightly nerve-wracking chases by neighbourhood dogs but really that can happen to any vehicle and the trick I realised was to firmly tell them off and keep on pedalling.
Cycling back from my workout as the city started on its routine, people-watching was a fun pastime - children heading to school, people hurrying to office, the last of the fitness freaks getting in their running quota for the day. In the process of trying out different routes back home, I discovered shops that I didn’t know in my own neighbourhood. When you drive in a motorised vehicle there is no time to observe sign boards but cycling gives you the luxury of checking things out. I discovered several small shops providing a range of services from puncture repair to restaurants. My mental map of the city for about 6 kms around my home got better as I tried out different bylanes to see which was the best route in terms of distance, road surface, and traffic.
Give way to cyclists!
Cycling has its downside as well. Cyclists feel very precarious. There are many who cycle because they cannot afford motorised vehicles. Just cycling in non peak hours, I found it hard to deal with people honking crazily, for no reason (apparently if we don’t honk every few seconds we are not driving); coming really really close to you when they overtake; turning just inches before you so you have to brake hard and stop; getting angry because cycles don’t zoom away when the light turns green and so block them for a couple of seconds. Then there are some who just sneer at cyclists and feel they should not be allowed on the roads as if driving a polluting vehicle makes you superior.
Is it our psyche or just conditioning that we all think that bigger and faster is better? It may be true of some things in life but I dont think it's true on the roads. Cars pollute the air causing health problems to all. I recently read that the perennially poor air quality in India is making things worse for Covid patients. Cars (often with just one occupant) take up a lot of space on the road and on pavements/roadsides when parked. Is that fair? Creation of these vehicles also consumes more resources - energy, metal, rubber, plastic, water (industrial processes to make many things require water at different stages), and whatever else that goes into the making of a car.
Cycles are the exact opposite. And yet we think a car is better!
June 3 is World Bicycle Day. While some things, like cycle lanes, are linked to governance systems, each of us can make an effort. Every time you drive a motor vehicle and come across a cycle slowing you down, don’t rev your engine and honk at them. Slow down and let them go safely. Perhaps, you may even smell the roses.