By S. ChidambaramLast Saturday as I walked up and down on the new sidewalk in the Vacoas town centre, I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a few people still using their bikes. Later in the afternoon, I saw in a village a considerable number of people cycling on the road. I have always urged extreme caution to friends and relatives who use their bicycles, for the roads have become dangerous due to reckless drivers.
Now I think the time has come to encourage more people to use their bicycles at least for short trips, but not before implementing a certain number of measures to make the transport infrastructure cyclist-friendly. At present our transport policy or road infrastructure are neither cyclist- nor pedestrian-friendly. Existing pavements are generally uncomfortable for anybody and impossible for our growing elderly population. I always wonder how many people must have visited the Casualty department of Jeetoo Hospital because of accidents caused by the pavements in Port Louis.
The advantages of walking or using the bicycle are numerous, whether in terms of the flexibility it provides, as a cheap means of non-motorised transportation, for health reasons and for saving on fuel. Even when they use buses they find it difficult to walk to and from the bus-stop because of lack of pavement or the poor state of the sidewalks. Yet many people still walk a certain distance every day. Like in the olden days people still use the bicycles to carry personal goods, but this happens mostly in villages or in the town suburbs. Everyday we still find postmen, policemen and cake vendors and others still using their bikes.
But we should not just encourage the use of bicycles without coming out with a clear policy regarding road infrastructure and road safety. Our transport and road planners should now give adequate attention to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, not only at the Central government level but also at the level of our municipalities, district and village councils. There must be better provision for improvement of pavements, bicycle lanes, tracks reserved for bicycles, bicycle road crossings, bicycle stands, and also the possibility of renting bicycles. Policies could also target the import of quality and durable bicycles. Road safety measures as well as the safe use of bicycles should be learnt. At the moment using a bicycle does not require knowledge of traffic signs and regulations. All these issues and many more need to be looked into.
Road planning should henceforth factor in the use of bicycles. This has not been so because it is only motorised transportation which has been the focus of planners. In fact everything appears to have been done to drive away pedestrians and cyclists from the roads. There is also a class and a status factor, as it is generally poor people who have recourse to their bikes while the middle class will use their cars and it is demeaning for them to use bicycles. The climate may also have played its part in discouraging the use of bicycles even for short distances.
In many developed countries more and more people are using their bikes for short errands. We too need to change the image of bicycle use. In the past, girls were discouraged even from learning to use the bikes, let alone use it to go on errands. This gendered use of the bikes does not hold anymore, and in the future better and more convenient bikes and even three- wheeled bikes can be contemplated.
Three ministers had recently, as a symbolic gesture, travelled from their homes to work on bikes. They should now go beyond the symbolism and come with a policy to promote the use of bicycles in addition to other modes of transportation. It may be too late now for the budget to promote the use of bicycles but at least this item should become a major issue in the coming village council and municipal elections. Some initiatives can already be taken to transform some of the railway tracks which are not being used into bicycle tracks. A good example would be to use the railway track from Quatre Bornes to Rose Hill.
* Published in print edition on 16 November 2012