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    View | Cycling to sustainability: The need to change commuter behaviour

    View | Cycling to sustainability: The need to change commuter behaviour

    View | Cycling to sustainability: The need to change commuter behaviour
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    By Aishwarya Raman   | Sayani Mandal   IST (Published)

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    India is on the cusp of a behavioural transformation in favour of cycling. This is witnessed by the growing number of bicycle enthusiasts and appointment of bicycle mayors in forty Indian cities. With increased political awareness and will, cities like Kolkata, Rajkot, and Bhubaneswar have already introduced a few behavioural change incentive schemes to mainstream cycling.

    Anyone who has promptly broken a New Year’s resolution would know that changing our travel habits for a sustainable lifestyle can be a tall order, one requiring a consistent commitment of effort and emotion. Despite knowing that cycling can improve our health, reduce vehicular congestion and pollution, and make our streets, communities and cities more vibrant, the resistance to pedal is immense. No wonder, cycle-based work trips constitute a low 13 percent of all urban commute trips in India, and are in fact witnessing a steady decline. The crux of the matter is that people are afraid to change.
    To help individuals overcome their resistance to change, cities can adopt the globally acclaimed behavioural change model, developed by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente. The model posits that behavioural change is an iterative, long-drawn-out process. People undergo behavioural change in stages, each of which could last days or even months. Hence, cities should adopt a multipronged approach to nudge citizens, such that their behavioural change is tangible, replicable, scalable, and sustainable.
    Initially, cities may nudge individuals to cycle around parks, within their neighbourhoods, etc., for recreation, in the hope that cycling becomes a habit. Hyperlocal campaigns, training sessions, cyclothons and cycle maintenance workshops, and city-wide gaming and immersive experiences using digital platforms will go a long way. Gradually, citizens can be expected to cycle to the market, workplace or school. This nudge can be further reinforced by establishing public bicycle sharing systems across the city—wherein cycles are available for rent, anywhere and anytime.
    This way, cities would start influencing people in the initial stages of behavioural change, precontemplation and contemplation—where individuals may not even be thinking of cycling as a daily mode choice. For them, the threats of cycling—say accidents, or not seeing immediate health benefits etc. —outweigh the advantages of pedalling. To convince them, cities should leverage mass media and raise awareness around the urgent necessity to switch to cycles today.
    World’s cycling capital, the Netherlands, gets this right. Until the 1970s, cycling was alien to their mobility culture. However, the global oil crisis and increasing motorisation-induced road fatalities among children made them contemplate a “travel behavioural shift” towards cycling. This was further facilitated by citywide activism by concerned mothers driving both political classes and the citizenry to rethink their behaviour. With adequate support and information from the local government, the Netherlands ensured that its inhabitants pedalled to the next stages of behaviour change.
    Juxtaposing this with India’s reality is revealing. In India, about 70 percent of work trips are under 5 kilometres, making it practically convenient to pedal to work. Even NCT of Delhi, which has the lowest share of short trips among all states in India, has a whopping 75 percent of work trips under 10 kilometres. Therefore, contrary to the assumption that cycling is not viable for cities as large as those in India, cycling is a promising alternative. Cities now need to bust myths against cycling through information dissemination, training programmes, and catalysing citizen-led behavioural change.
    The intermediate stages of behaviour change are preparation and action, where individuals start thinking about shifting to cycling but face physical and mental barriers to commit to it. To help overcome said roadblocks, cities need to improve the image of, and create social support for cycling. Copenhagen is a classic case of successfully reinventing cycling—from an unsafe and a rarely used mode in the 60s to the mainstreaming and adoption of cycle-driven socio-economic development since the 70s. The Danes did this with cycle superhighways, protected lanes, and interconnected cycling infrastructure. This paradigm shift revitalised the overall mobility fabric of the city. Cyclists are now given equal importance in the city’s transport equation. Famously, today, the process of designing “bicycle-friendly streets” is termed as “Copenhagenization”.
    As citizens pedal into the final stages of behaviour change, maintenance and relapse become a growing concern. Environmental activism and promotional campaigns are insufficient to sustain change. Recognising this, the Netherlands and Denmark have exemplary incentive schemes which place cyclists at the centre. Tax benefits for bicycle purchase and use, bicycle-credit and carbon-credit programmes, all-in-one platform for bicycle-sharing, and regular cycling events are few of the many interventions in these nations that ensure cycling gets deeply ingrained in their culture. Consequently, cycling constitutes 36 percent and 49 percent mode share in Amsterdam and Copenhagen respectively.
    Closer home in India, with the objective of providing social support for cycling, many cities have started car-free Sundays or Raahgiri days empowering individuals to reclaim their streets for walking, cycling, and art too! Gradually today, in a world marred by the pandemic, citizens are regarding cycling as an important mode choice allowing them to commute while maintaining physical distancing. The recent initiative of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Cycles4Change Challenge, is taking India one step closer to mainstreaming cycling. Likewise, fiscal incentives too should be considered to accelerate the adoption of cycling in India.
    Notably, using behavioural prompts for promoting sustainable travel is no new feat for the country. Posters carrying horrific images of accidents in railway stations, and behavioural design interventions on state and national highways are commonly found across India. Studies show that these pilot projects helped reduce railway fatalities by 40-70 percent in Mumbai, and road fatalities by 52 percent on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Undoubtedly, behavioural science is now being employed to tackle mobility issues at scale. Cities should use this strategy for cycling as well.
    India is on the cusp of a behavioural transformation in favour of cycling. This is witnessed by the growing number of bicycle enthusiasts and appointment of bicycle mayors in forty Indian cities. With increased political awareness and will, cities like Kolkata, Rajkot, and Bhubaneswar have already introduced a few behavioural change incentive schemes to mainstream cycling. The time is now for the rest of India to act. Adopting even a few of the above approaches can completely alter the essence of urban mobility in the country, helping India pedal to health and sustainability.
    — Sayani Mandal is an Urban Mobility researcher at the Ola Mobility Institute (OMI). Aishwarya Raman is the Director and Head of Research. Views expressed are personal
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