The Invisible Lives of Livelihood Cyclists in Urban India
by Janhavi Devari and Amrutha Viswanath
India has been urbanising at a rapid rate in the past 70 years, and much of this growth has been in the past two decades. India’s urban population is poised to grow to about 473 million in 2021 and 820 million by 2051, as against only 285 million in 2001 . This rapid urban growth demands a robust transportation system, especially when it comes to road transport, with India having the second largest road network in the world .
The period after Indian independence witnessed an unprecedented expansion in road networks. Although some road infrastructure policies had been drafted during colonial times, like the Indian Road Congress and the Central Road Fund in 1929, the Motor Vehicles Act in 1988 initiated India’s legislative arrival into the motorised transport landscape. Private vehicle ownership quadrupled in the immediate years after the act was passed, increasing from 3.78 million in 1981 to 17.15 million in 1991 .
The following decades saw a host of acts and policies catering to motorized transport, which coupled with the 90s liberalization witnessed a rise in road infrastructure too. - with private and foreign investments, the total length of the national highways increased from 16,200 km in the early 1990s to 66,754km in 2007-08 .
It is important to highlight that most transport policies did not consider the non-motorised vehicle sector, until the 2006 National Urban Transport Policy. Under this, the Working Group Recommendations for the 12th Five Year Plan envisioned the Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority for all the 53 million-plus cities, only 15 of which have actually implemented it .
Non-motorized Transport - Trends
The NMT modal share during the 80s was between the range of 40%-60% . However, a decline has been seen in most cities across India. A lack of bicycle and pedestrian safety is a major factor behind this sharp decrease in NMT patronage. With more infrastructure like expressways and highways, geared towards motorized vehicles, facilities for NMT have not been planned or realized in the last few decades. NMT inclusive policy has only recently found footing in India, with the 2006 NUTP having NMT promotion as one of its objectives. The 2014 amendment also outlines more people-centric policies, approaching a change in modal share through its Avoid, Shift and Improve method.
The policy has urban land use and transport planning as one of its objectives and introduces the concept of the Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) for Indian cities.
NMT inclusion in CMPs
The comprehensive mobility plans (CMPs) have been prepared as a vision statement of the direction in which Urban Transport in a city should grow, ideally covering all elements of Urban Transport under an integrated planning process. These documents often address the non-motorized transport sector too, but their scope of survey and intervention varies with each city.
The decline of non-motorized transport is established in most CMPs - in Chennai, the NMT patronage has decreased from 34% to 28% in 2018, with the modal share of bicycles reducing from 6% to 2.9% . Pune has recorded a decrease in bicycle share from 21% in 1981 to 3% in 2016 . Most CMPs have also considered the purpose of travel across different modes, but none of them have highlighted the intersection between the modal split, travel purpose, and livelihoods of passengers. CMPs’ primary focus lies on the recreational aspect of NMT, especially recreational bicycling. In the 2019 Chennai CMP, out of more than 25 proposed dedicated bicycle lanes, only 5 lanes go through economically weaker zones of the city . Similarly, the existing infrastructure (Tender SURE roads) and proposed cycle parking hubs and lanes under the Bengaluru CMP mostly cover well-developed, high-income areas like Koramangala, HSR Layout, and Banaswadi .
These mobility plans display the gap between infrastructure proposed for recreational NMT patrons and livelihood NMT users. This gap must be identified and addressed.
The Case of NMT Development in Bengaluru
Bengaluru is one of the fastest-growing cities in India. It is aptly termed as the ‘Silicon Valley of India’ for leading the information technology revolution in the country. Many IT-based industries have bloomed in Bengaluru, and consequently, it has become a cosmopolitan city attracting people and businesses alike. However, the city struggles with the challenges of road congestion and increasing usage of private vehicles over NMT and public transport. While projects like Tender SURE have redeveloped sections of some roads in the city centre to improve their infrastructure and showcase them as model roads enabling pedestrian and cyclist safety and accessibility, the NMT network in the rest of the city still needs to be developed. The provision of a pan-city NMT network is the vision behind developing Tender SURE roads, which needs to be realised to provide transportation equity to millions of livelihood cyclists going to their work on cycles .
The city of Bengaluru is considered the third most populated city in India. It has evolved over the years leading to the formation of new economic boundaries as well as informal settlements in the city. The map (above) intends to analyze the pattern of low-income settlements being generated around the economic outgrowths as well as understanding the trend in road infrastructural development in the city. It is observed from the map that the road infrastructural development, especially the non-motorised transport development, lacks initiatives to interlink the various economic centres, as well as the low-income neighbourhoods that usually inhabit livelihood cyclists of the city.
The map (above) depicts the current scenario of road infrastructural development in the city of Bengaluru, which is mainly focused on enhancing the user experience in the central business district area. Though it forms the most important district in the city as it constitutes major institutions and political landmarks, the road infrastructural development has facilitated the needs of only certain user groups. The everyday mapping of livelihood cyclists gives us insights on preferred routes followed to reach the work centres. As the residences of livelihood cyclists are located mostly in the outskirts of the city, it brings out the conflict between the current trend in NMT infrastructural development and user needs.
The Livelihood Cyclists: Narratives from Bengaluru
Invisible Cyclists of Richmond Town
The streets of Richmond Town are framed by colonial-era edifices. The neighbourhood is a prime residential area with sprawling colonial-era bungalows, posh clubs, and cultural centres peppered across the area. An area that is rather calm amidst the chaos of Bengaluru traffic, one can see that the neighbourhood is a favourite among upper-class commercial establishments too.
But this region also plays the role of the collective workspace of several lives - the newspaper vendors, vegetable hawkers, street food vendors, and watchmen, to name a few. All of them work in synergy and are the spine of this, and several neighbourhoods. And yet, they remain invisible. One worker laments the lack of customers, while another vendor complains about the harassment they face from the cops. The shopkeepers are always on the move to maintain their fragile livelihoods, having developed a defence mechanism against harassment from police personnel.
One shopkeeper explains, “We keep relocating every five minutes. You stay longer than that and the cops will latch on to you.”
Apart from vendors, people employed in service jobs also commute by cycle. Workers behind the upkeep of the sprawling properties in Richmond Town frequently commute through their cycles. Watchmen, gardeners, and construction workers use these very streets, but their relevance is diminished through the absence of any dedicated cycling infrastructure. It is quite ironic how many recreational cyclists here vocalize the need for separate cycle lanes but the voices of livelihood cyclists somehow fail to amplify.
Malleshwaram: A Network of Street Actors
The bustling commercial hub of Malleshwaram is regarded as one of the busiest neighbourhoods of Bengaluru. Planned as a residential suburb after the great plague of 1898, Malleshwaram soon transformed into a commercial hotspot. A large part of its identity is linked to the myriad shops of its streets - from artisanal outlets to informal, nomadic hawkers. Between the air-conditioned high fashion stores and the numerous food joints, there is a complex network of street vendors who work day and night to keep the streets vibrant.
One flower hawker explains, “I have been selling flowers for the past 35 years here in Malleshwaram. I receive strung flowers from one vendor, who in turn gets raw flowers from other states like Tamil Nadu. Vendors here have formed a system like this over the years.”
As a result of this system, the vendors seem fairly content with their location and security.
As for the streets’ safety regarding cycle commutes, the story is a little different. Broken footpaths, improper waste disposal, and street lighting absence make Malleshwaram’s roads unpopular amongst workers who commute by cycle.
As with any affluent neighbourhood, Malleshwaram seems to budge only to the ones who can afford to raise their voices. Many local urban initiatives see Malleshwaram only through the lens of its affluent residents while stressing less on the aspirations of those whose lives depend on its streets.
The Streets that Never Sleep - Shivajinagar
As one navigates through the crowds, people keep pouring into the haphazard streets of Shivajinagar like molasses through a funnel. Famous for its niche automobile scrap market, the entire mass of the neighbourhood has expanded to become the top market area for Bengalureans. You walk further down the street next to Russell Market and discover more and more shops - stalls, hawkers, pakka shops. You name it, the street has it. You can feel the energy of the streets and there is a reason why Shivajinagar never sleeps.
Shivajinagar sustains through complex supply chains unbeknownst to its consumers. However, the streets can be competitive. Contrary to popular belief, a substantial portion of the residents here even cycle to neighbouring areas for better employment and wages.
One shopkeeper laments, “There are so many shops here, it gets tough to draw attention. We just want to be noticed!”
An added pressure that hawkers face is the harassment from police officials.
The congestion during peak traffic also doesn’t help their case - commuters and consumers alike are hesitant to take routes through Shivajinagar.
One expects the street, in all its bustling glory, to get some form of patronage due to its fame, but the truth couldn’t be farther from it. A common complaint amongst cyclists in these streets is the lack of adequate street lights.
“Although the streets remain active during the night, since there aren’t many street lights one tends to feel unsafe here.” says one commuter.
The streets can be witnessed oscillating between unbearable levels of traffic and unreliable infrastructure - jeopardizing the very existence of Shivajinagar’s vibrance.
 Transport Research Wing, Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, Government of India, New Delhi. Road Transport Year Book (2007-09).
 Sneha Visakha, Policy | A case for a unified metropolitan transport authority, moneycontrol.com
 GIZ, Non-motorized Transport Policy in India - The need for a reform agenda
 Chennai Comprehensive Mobility Plan 2019
 Comprehensive Bicycle Master Plan Pune 2017
 Chennai Comprehensive Mobility Plan 2019
 Bengaluru Comprehensive Mobility Plan 2020
 Government of Karnataka Project Tender SURE Report
Happy World Bicycle Day to everyone!
Note: This article is a part of an ongoing research module initiated by the team at Multilogue Collective. To stay updated, subscribe to multiloguecollec