‘CAR-FREE CMB’ was an admirable initiative by Mayoress Rosy Senanayake and Dutch Ambassador Joanne Doornewaard
Colombo Mayoress Rosy Senanayake’s recent initiative to promote a cycling culture in Colombo is admirable, but if it’s to bring about any kind of change to Colombo’s notoriously conservative, unimaginative and smug transport culture, a long-term plan is needed, and that is not something the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) can do alone.
Why is the Colombo transport culture smug? Motorists, motorcyclists, bus passengers, and even pedestrians (whose right to cross the streets is now increasingly guaranteed by signal lights) are smug about their right to use Colombo’s labyrinthine streets, narrow or wide. But only very experienced and diehard cyclists would venture out on bicycles, and they look anything but smug as they pit their wits against racing motor vehicles and lurching, wayward buses.
One wonders if the mayor’s initiative has something to do the visit of a West European ambassador to Sri Lanka, a woman, to the CMC riding a bicycle. Whatever the motivation was, the initiative was good (even if the mayor herself did not ride one for the event; if she did, there were no press photographs) but an urgent second step is needed if we are ever going to see bicycle commuting as a regular event and a way of life in our cities and towns.
One could say the ambassador was nothing short of brave riding a bicycle in Colombo. But, as a lifelong cyclist, I can vouch that cycling is safe, safer than most other mode of transport (other than trains) in this country. I’ve had one car accident and two on motorcycles, but none on a bicycle. I’m actually surprised by how safe cyclists seem to be, given that many of them still ride without lights at night.
But these are the veterans. They have developed the necessary survival skills over the years. For a novice, our city streets or suburban roads look daunting and dangerous. That’s why I see relatively few new faces on bicycles on roads, and those are by and large working class people who do so out of economic necessity. During the Mahinda Rajapasksa era, there was a sudden surge of leisure cycling centered around Diyawanna Oya and Baddegana-Kotte areas. But this fizzled out and, doing my weekend cycling run there, I don’t see any of these helmeted rider s on their expensive, hi-tech bikes any more.
"Pollution and traffic congestion levels are already very high in Colombo and other cities. Promoting a cycling culture is a sure way of combating this if only the necessary will and vision are there"
While making cycling safer for everyone, the idea is to try and lure the middle classes and above out of their safe, complacent steel and plastic cocoons. Actually, this class division is rather silly and unfair, since there are many working class people too, who would cycle commute if the roads were safer. But the middle class is supposed to be a catalyst for change (unless I’m day dreaming?); all I know is that there are people from all levels out there who would gladly start cycle commuting if the conditions were right.
Simply painting a white line along a busy two lane or four lane street isn’t adequate. This was amply demonstrated by the fiasco cycling path opened in the Nawala-Koswatte area by Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka when he was with the MR government.
A purely political move, as demonstrated by the minister who rode a black standard bicycle wearing a white national suit (a nationalist image harking back to the 1950s and totally out of sync with the times) on inaugural day, it was doomed to fail from the start. The cycling lane is now shared by bicycles, tuk tuks, motorcycles and pedestrians, with bigger vehicles encroaching when necessary. There is no pavement for much of the way and naturally pedestrians have to use it. There are no sign boards designating a cycling lane, so it’s deemed a free-for-all.
Back to the mayor. I used to cycle from home to office every day. It was a short distance, but I had to pass three, four or five traffic lights depending on the route, and the bicycle saved a lot of time without any parking headaches. I gave this up two years ago due to increasing heat. Now I do my cycling when the sun is down or on overcast days. If the giant trees which sheltered me were still there, I’d still be commuting between home and office. The CMC doesn’t look after the city’s ageing trees, and they are felled at an alarming rate just as the wild elephant population is decimated by hunters and speeding trains. A long term tree planting and tree rehabilitation project is required alongside a cycling promotion plan.
China has now overhead cycling lanes for bicycles. We don’t yet have a single lengthy overhead lane even for cars, and one for cycling is a dream. Cycling paths are more practical, but where do you demarcate them? Apart from a few main arteries such as Galle Road and Kumaratunga Munidasa Mawatha (Thurstan Road), our city streets are too narrow for a cycling path. Also, without the shelter of trees, I doubt if many would venture on bicycles in the sweltering heat.
A pilot project could focus on a recreational cycling path along some of these streets between five to six am and nine to eleven pm, to be used for exercise and leisure rather than commuting during the day. Closing certain areas for motor traffic for at least half a day during Sundays, public holidays and Poya days too, could be undertaken. If the inner streets of Pettah are closed for motor traffic for half a day on certain days, for example, walking as well as cycling could be encouraged. Both are extremely beneficial forms of exercise, something to ponder considering the increasing burden of health bills, both private and public.
"While making cycling safer, the idea is to try and lure the middle class and above out of their safe, complacent steel and plastic cocoons"
In many parts of the world, especially in Western Europe, such projects are already underway. The previous government built cycling and walking paths in public parks and along sections of Diyawanna Oya. As far as the cycling goes, they are used overwhelmingly by strollers rather than by cyclists. Bicycles could be rented at the location, but there is always the problem of getting there. Going by car, bus or three wheeler to ride a bicycle inside Vihara Maha Devi Park defeats the purpose.
Why is there such inbuilt prejudice against cycling? In a country where a car is venerated like a deity, bicycles are often seen with contempt. A visiting French cyclist told me that Sri Lanka is worst country she has ever cycled in as far as respect for cyclists goes.
As a cyclist, I have experienced both sides of the coin, both respect and contempt. My despair grows each year as the traffic gets worse and cycling gets marginalized. There are many projects which can change this situation. The railway department, for example, can promote cycling by offering bicycles for hire at railway stations, and also by transporting our bicycles to various destinations for a fee.
Seminars, lectures and panel discussions can be carried out in schools, offices and other platforms to promote a cycling culture. There are many office workers including executives who would like to cycle commute to work if their companies co-operated by offering facilities to change clothes, for example. The CMC could discuss this matter with both private companies and public corporations and offices. An incentive, bonus or merit point scheme offered to those who cycle commute to work daily, or even three times a week, can be initiated.
Another point to consider is the cost of new hi tech bicycles, ranging from Rs. 30,000 to 100,000 or more. This would be prohibitive to many would be cyclists. A leasing scheme, similar to motor vehicle leasing, can be introduced by banks, companies and corporations working together with finance companies.
Pollution and traffic congestion levels are already very high in Colombo and other cities. Promoting a cycling culture is a sure way of combating this if only the necessary will and vision are there.