Rallying call for cycling
Lalanthi Rajapaksa celebrated World Bicycle Day Sunday (3) with her cycling group – Pedal Pushers – cycling around Colombo together with 30-50 riders, to raise awareness on safe cycling and for more cycle lanes in and around Colombo.
At 47, she is part of a growing movement of cyclist enthusiasts pushing for more equitable space on the roads for motorists and cyclists. With accident rates and traffic congestion making life on the road unbearable for many, what Rajapaksa offers is a welcome reprieve.
Colombo, the most populated city in the country, has average speeds of traffic between 13–17 km per hr. The most probable explanation for this is the uncontrolled increase in the number of motor vehicles in the country. Last year, 451,653 new motor vehicles were registered in the country, taking the total number to 7,247,122 – in theory this means that there is one car for every three people. In this scenario, cycling can be one of the fastest ways to get around.
At age 39, Rajapaksa wanted to something different to do with her life. “I had cycled as a teenager, but then stopped. But I wanted to do something healthy and outdoors, so my friend Darshi and I took to cycling around.” Together they started Pedal Pushers, a cycle enthusiast group to encourage cycling and as numbers grew, so did their activities. In 2012, they started the Colombo Cycle Fun Rides to promote cycling and Rajapaksa has since cycled around the country four times – a total of 1,400 km in 13 days, each time.
Today, they cycle twice a week, on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, 30 km each time. “I see many more cycle groups, cycle shops and various places for cycling opening up now. Interest has grown,” she said.
No roads to cycle on
The main drawback for her and many cyclists, however, is the lack of available cycle paths and the lack of safety on the road for cyclists. Women, especially, are afraid to get on to the road due to the lack of safety, she said.
Cycling which an eco-friendly, healthy and cheap mode of transport touches on many positive aspects and addresses 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the country is bound to achieve by 2030. According to the European Cycling Federation, cities which have a “coherent cycle network consisting of safe, direct, comfortable and attractive routes” encourage more people to switch to cycling.
Nimal Wimalasuriya took to cycling two years ago at age 63, as a means of staying fit and living a healthier lifestyle. “Cycling is a great experience and wherever you go, you can stop and take in the scenery. You can see things you never saw when driving a car,” he said.
Many in his age group and social strata have taken to it with similar vigour. The ‘Around the Pearl’ challenge, which has people cycle along the coast of Sri Lanka from Point Pedro to Dondra, has an entry fee of Rs. 100,000. Many CEOs participate in it for charity, similar to other cycling events at present. The average age of a participant, he says, is between 55 and 56.
“There are several types of cyclists in the different groups. One group does it for leisure and fun, another as a competitive sport where they race, and the third group likes to engage in off-road biking events.”
Echoing Rajapaksa’s concerns, he however explained that many were reluctant to adopt cycling as an everyday means of transport due to safety concerns and the lack of cycling infrastructure. “There are some cycling lanes in Battaramulla, but vehicles park on them and at times, use them. So there is no space for cyclists. Also, it is very dangerous for cyclists out there. The worst accident that can happen is a person opening a car door on a cyclist,” he said.
Encouraging non-motorised transport (cycling included) has been on the agenda for many years in the transport sector policy circles. In the draft National Transport Policy prepared in 2009 by a committee chaired by Senior Professor Amal S. Kumarage for the National Transport Commission (NTC), the group highlighted the need to develop public transport and infrastructure for non-motorised transport in a bid to get people to switch from private motor vehicle use.
“The policy of the government is to encourage the use of public transport, high occupancy vehicles and non-motorised transport. It will seek to influence a modal shift from road to rail transport and from private modes to higher occupancy modes, using regulatory and fiscal measures. The government will take steps to provide the public with the widest possible choice of different modes of goods and passenger transport that would be consistent with the country’s objectives of optimising land and road space use, conserving the environment and energy, achieving cost effectiveness and ensuring affordability for users,” stated the policy.
They asked that at least one-tenth of space of all roads within urban areas is provided exclusively for non-motorised transport such as for sidewalks for walking and lanes for bicycles. The draft policy also suggested that selected urban areas ensure that separate infrastructure facilities exist for pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles; there is increased awareness of safety aspects in the use of such vehicles; and the use of safety equipment on bicycles is popularised.
The committee asked that in order to popularise the use of bicycles, a special scheme for financing the purchase of bicycles through the rural banking system be provided. Other suggestions were to ask schools and offices to encourage the use of bicycles and for the provision of parking or stacking and security of the bicycles, development of park and ride facilities near railway stations and bus stops for bicycles so that a greater degree of choice is provided for door-to-door services.
The policy was not implemented. In 2015, when Dr Lalithasiri Gunaruwan was appointed as the Secretary to the Transport and Civil Aviation Ministry, he once again pushed for this policy, but nothing came of it.
He assessed that if at least 10–20 percent of the population could be encouraged to switch to non-motorised transport, it could make a great difference.
Sri Lanka presently consumes an estimated 3,000 million litres of petroleum fuel every year, with around 70 percent being diesel (Kumarage et al., 2009) and spends millions of rupees in foreign exchange annually on petroleum imports. Adding to the mix is the issue of pollution and related health issues as well as congestion on the roads.
A recent study to compare the health of schoolchildren in urban and rural areas showed that urban children fared much worse in health indicators when compared to their rural counterparts as a result of their schools being located in heavily polluted and congested areas, said Dr Gunaruwan. “Moving towards non-motorised transport, especially cycling, could solve all of that. We can also reduce the load on our roads. It is a low-cost solution compared to mega projects.”
As a measure to combat the high level of traffic and air pollution on the main roads, Dr Gunaruwan suggested that cycle lanes be introduced on by-roads and interior roads which connect to the main road at safe locations. “It is pointless to have the whole cycle lane on a main road,” he said.
He further said that the suggestion to have bicycle parking facilities at railway stations was redundant as small shops next to many main railway stations already offered that service. “The government need not spend money it does not have in places where the service is already provided.”
During his time as the Ministry Secretary, Dr Gunaruwan himself used to cycle to the Panadura Railway Station from his home, where he would park his bicycle at one of the shops for a fee and take the train to work in Colombo.
“It is a package of policies. No one thing will work in isolation. You need to ensure safety, promote cycling, have access to roads, price fuel right (with external costs such as congestion and pollution added to it) and introduce policies to discourage private vehicle ownership.”
“People who use vehicles should pay for the damage caused. And when petrol is cheap, people do not switch,” he added.
According to NTC Chairman M.A.P. Hemachandra, they are working on yet another National Transport Policy. Disregarding the policy document in 2009, he said they were finalising a new one and they hoped to finalise it with Cabinet approval this year.
The new plan, however, is similar to the 2009 plan and once again reiterates many of the issues and solutions put forward in 2009. They asked that non-motorised transport be promoted wherever possible. “The new plan asks for connectivity and safe crossings and protection from inclement weather where possible as well as information about NMT [non-motorised transport] routes and network. Whether this plan too would be implemented, however, is questionable.
“We don’t have policy-led implementation in the transport sector. We have a great tradition of going with implied policies, rather than explicit policies on paper,” said Senior Prof. Kumarage on the non-implementation of his own document, nine years ago.
The state of non-motorised transport has not changed in spite of it being constantly highlighted, he added. President Sirisena’s national programme, “Vision for a Sustainable Era 2030,” too, has a section on sustainable transport, he explained, but on the ground, little action is seen.
He proposes that the government look at a National Mobility Policy, instead of a Transport Policy, given the structure of government. “The Transport Ministry in reality has very little control of overall policy. Fuel pricing is done by the Finance Ministry, vehicle pricing is also not up to them, while highway tolls are managed by another. So you need to combine all ministries for an effective policy to work,” he said.
In reality, there are 14 ministries to deal with various aspects of cycling alone: Mahaweli Development and Environment; National Policies and Economic Affairs; Sustainable Development, Wildlife and Regional Development; Transport and Civil Aviation; Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine; Highways and Road Development; Megapolis and Western Development; Provincial Councils, Local Government and Sports; City Planning and Water Supply; Youth Affairs, Project Management and Southern Development; Education; Tourism Development and Christian Religious Affairs; Science, Technology, Research, Skills Development and Vocational Training and Hill Country Heritage; and Public Administration and Management and Law and Order.
“What we need is political leadership and courage to implement these changes. To take charge of the wheel and drive it where it needs to go,” said Prof. Kumarage.
In Sri Lanka however, a car is seen as an ‘investment,’ a status symbol and as per capita incomes grow, owning a car rather than a bicycle becomes the dream. “You cannot change aspirations, but what you can do is create social acceptance. If it is seen as something the ‘rich’ would do, attitudes will change,” stressed Dr Gunaruwan.
Yasas Hewage, owner of cyclist café Spinner in Battaramulla and founder of the cycle enthusiast group WrooM, went one step further and made it professional.
Hewage, who worked in corporate banking, for 15 years, left his career to start Spinner, five years ago.
“I took to cycling initially as a personal choice to be more environmentally friendly and I would cycle to the bank every day. Then I started studying it, researching on biomedical sciences. And we started WrooM to encourage people to cycle.”
Spinner was started as a place to have fellow cycle enthusiasts meet, while also having their cycles taken care of.
“I also wanted to uplift the cycle mechanic to a professional level. It was a dying industry and I wanted to introduce technology and give them a sense of professionalism. In the process, youngsters would also take to the profession,” said Hewage.
His Bike Fit Lab which fits you to your perfect bicycle is the first of its kind in South Asia and it could cost you a minimum of Rs. 23,000 to get the right fit.
Hewage also provides training programmes, athlete nutrition programmes and other technical support. He provided the local technical support when the IRONMAN 70.3 international triathlon came to Colombo, earlier this year.
“The dream is to send a Sri Lankan to Tour de France,” said Spinner Marketing and Sales Manager Mithun Liyanage. He himself will be competing in the IRONMAN competition in September. Liyanage, like his boss, used to ride to work at his previous workplace – DIMO – to avoid being stuck in traffic. “I would ride from Nugegoda to Colombo 14, in 35 minutes, compared to over an hour in public transport,” he said. Luckily for him, shower facilities were available at work, along with a certain level of workplace flexibility.
“It is the most affordable way to get around. You have no insurance, tax or fuel bills,” he said.
He noted that with better infrastructure, more people would take to cycling and exercise in general. The building of walking paths and cycling lanes in the last few years, had proven this fact to be true.
“We also need to educate cyclists about proper safety gear and sticking to traffic rules,” he added.
Despite the many achievements Hewage has had in promoting cycling, he is now cautious about promoting it without having the proper infrastructure in place. “As opinion leaders, we have to be conscious of what we promote. You can get people hurt. Also, you can’t expect a person with limited flexibility at work to switch. Cycling to work requires that you have a shower and locker at work, proper planning and a change of clothes. Your workplace needs to accept it. It took me 15 years to get to a place in my workplace to ask for what I wanted,” said Hewage.
He however is of the opinion that encouraging companies to adopt cycling in their workplaces may change things. “All we need is one or two to adopt it and others will follow. They will also educate people to do it responsibly.”
In the end however, to cycle or not depends on more than one person buying into it. Hewage recalled being stopped by the doorman at Shangri-La when he cycled into the hotel during the IRONMAN competition. “Perhaps he did not want a man on a bicycle coming there. We need that attitude to change.” Ironically, Shangri-La is hosting the IRONMAN competitors this year.
(The document National Policy on Transport in Sri Lanka by Kumarage, Amal, Gunaruwan, T.L., Jayaweera, D.S., Bandusena, A.M.D. and Jeffry, M.A. (2009) was used as reference for this article.) (Zahrah Imtiaz)