The ‘Detroit of India’ doesn’t have a single urban bike lane, its planners are obsessed with widening roads and even the poorest people want a car for status. But cycling activists are finding new strength in numbers
Before the sun rises over the East Coast Road south of Chennai each day, a lone rider speeds down the tarmac. Dressed in a fluorescent jersey and cycling shoes with a srichurnam – a red line of lime and turmeric paste – on his forehead, Ramanujar Moulana has followed exactly the same route every day for the past four decades … until now. For the past few weeks there’s been a new stop on his agenda: India’s first cycle cafe.
Nestled in Kotturpuram, a plush neighbourhood in the south of Tamil Nadu’s state capital, is the Ciclo Cafe. It boasts a cycle spa, where riders can watch their bike get washed while they drink their coffee, a reading area stocked with books on cycling, and decor fashioned from bike parts – cycle-chain chandeliers and table legs made from front forks. A retail zone showcases high-end brands like Bianchi, Cannondale, Mongoose and Schwinn.
“There is more to Chennai than ancient temples, Carnatic music and filter coffee,” says Nidhi Kapoor Thadani, the co-founder of the cafe, who was partly inspired after a visit to Look Mum No Hands! in Shoreditch, east London. “Thanks to the many recreational cycling clubs in Chennai the city has a strong cycling culture.”
Cycling has been a part of Chennai since the colonial period, when many British officers used bikes as their main mode of city transport. Nowadays, at least 37% of Chennai households own a bike, according to the Energy and Resources Institute; yet there is little in the way of local provision for cyclists and the city remains without a single urban bike lane.
Ciclo Cafe customer and longtime Chennai resident Mithra Massillamoney remembers that 1970s Madras, as the city was known until 1996, was friendlier to cyclists. “I used to ride a cycle to work every day in the mid 70s. Madras wasn’t so crowded back then. But I gave up cycling in the late 80s – as the city grew, so did pollution, and cycle was passé – motorbikes and cars were in.”
Mithra wasn’t alone. Cycling dropped significantly through the 1980s and 90s, as the city became known as the “Detroit of India” for its burgeoning motor industry – international companies including Hyundai, Renault, Bosch, Ford and BMW have factories in the area.
Since 1949, Chennai has also been home to manufacturing by TI Cycles – one of India’s “big four” bike-makers alongside Hero, Atlas and Avon, who together account for 90% of the 16m bicycles sold in the country every year. Yet, whileIndia ranks among the world’s top bicycle manufactures, bikes lack the status of cars or motorcycles.
While Chennai doesn’t have any cycle infrastructure, cities such as Delhi have built some bike paths. “I definitely don’t think Indian cities provide facilities for cyclists,” says prominent environmentalist Sunita Narain, who suffered multiple fractures when she was hit by a reversing car in Delhi two years ago.
“In fact, we are going in the opposite direction. We don’t see cyclists on the road. Urban planners consider them ‘invisible people’. The entire planning objective of the government is to widen the road to accommodate cars and even when cycling tracks are constructed in places like Delhi, they are not continuous and only cover a very small part of the city.
“Data shows that the most vulnerable road users are cyclists and pedestrians. Our cities need cycle tracks and we need to increase penalties for those responsible for road accidents, and increase camera surveillance to investigate when somebody is hit. This is why the upcoming Road Transport and Safety Bill must look at the safety of cyclists.”
“The urban decay started in the late 1970s and continues today,” adds Jasbir Singh, co-founder of Pedal Yatri, a recreational cycle group based in Gurgaon near Delhi. In the 1960s and 70s, every Biswajeet or Rajesh Khanna movie seemed to have at least one musical number featuring a group of happy girls cycling blissfully along, but “in the name of urbanisation many switched to 100cc motorbikes and the bicycle was left to the economically needy,” he explains. “Given a choice, even the poorest people will not ride a bike because of safety concerns, and because they want to ‘grow up’ in life.”
Jasbir does believe that is changing, though, thanks to “a handful of lifestyle and health conscious individuals”.
In Chennai, a growing number of recreational cycling groups – the Tamilnadu Cycling Club, Madras Randonneurs and Chain Reaxion among them – are building on that heritage. At the forefront are the Cycling Yogis, founded by Ramanujar Moulana, whose 2,000 members take part in organised rides to heritage sites in the city.
He hopes Ciclo Cafe can help raise awareness about cycling as a viable mode of transport by, for example, profiling residents who bike-commute in the pages of the menu and organising rides for customers. “If the cafe can stir the interest of non-cyclists about cycling,” he says, “it is definitely a good addition to the city.”