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People at the forefront of clean air


Sathya Sankaran

Scientists recently released a report which says we have 12 years to prevent the worst effects of rising temperatures. On the ground, the problem is going in the other direction at a fair clip. Air quality has been deteriorating in India over the past few decades. With India still focussed on creating large-scale manufacturing jobs and relaxing environmental laws this is only slated to get worse.

Beyond industrial causes, the contribution of the fossil fuel-based transportation system to bad air quality is not insignificant. In fact, the Ministry of Environment & Forests, India in 2010 found pollution due to motor vehicles is one of the leading causes of deteriorating air quality. Vehicles contribute 42% of the particulate and 67% of nitrogen oxides. The actual exposure levels were found to be, on an average, 3 to 12 times higher than the ambient levels in Bengaluru city. Some points like Peenya in the city counted 1300 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter as per a Greenpeace finding in 2015, which was 26 times more dangerous than WHO recommended guidelines. New Delhi has fared far worse in this regard with pollution reaching dangerous levels.

As government Ministers from all over the globe head for the World Health Organisation’s first ever international conference on air pollution and health this week, it is important to highlight that cycling and walking have long been a solution that has been staring us in the face. That, combined with mass public transport based on renewables will save the day for populated cities in India and other parts of the world. But in a growing economy, the society has classified the bicycle as an inferior good and walking as something for the poor. In India, talks of cycling and walking are seen as anti-development while the motor vehicle is seen as a symbol of upward mobility. The efficiencies of cycling and walking might be theoretically understood but the political economy finds it outside the Overton window to take action.

The hope is that the availability of bicycle as a last mile option will move people to public transport and some more to complete trips on the bicycle. Bengaluru has taken off with about 4500 bicycles on the road. The impact will come when it is 100,000 and covers a broader geographical area. Investments in walking and bicycling infrastructure still remains a distant dream. Some cities produce a few kilometres of walkable footpaths and cycling lanes only to see it abused by motor vehicles very quickly.

The road to change then comes down to the people who are at the receiving end of poor air quality. It’s important for them to take cycling from being a radical idea to a popular one in order to effect change. Cycle Day was one such idea thought up 5 years ago. The program recognised that traffic is a collective action problem and needed to be solved as a collective. Since October 2013, 35 communities and 400 cycle days have made it the longest running community-led open streets program in the country. It chose the neighbourhood path rather than a central event to catalyse communities to make short trips and introduce equity into their streets. Yet another program launched in Bengaluru on September 2018, International Car Free day, is the #CycleToWork campaign. It recognised that work commute was a major contributor to air quality issues. It gamified the process to allow groups of people to compete and get their company on a leaderboard. It has already seen 75 companies within a month of launching and moving to other cities nationally and internationally. More such innovative nudges are needed to make large-scale change urgently.

The clock is ticking, and we don’t have a planet B. Each person’s choice will be the difference between destroying permanently what we have and buying time so our children can fix the mistakes we have made so far.
Sathyanarayanan Sankaran, is a tactical urbanist, technologist and public policy professional with 10 years in the civic advocacy space on sustainable mobility. He is the co-founder of online advocacy platform Praja RAAG and the co-founder of Citizens For Sustainability (CiFoS) which works on urban interventions. He is also the Bengaluru Bicycle Mayor and is an active member of the international Bicycle Mayor Network initiated by Amsterdam based social enterprise BYCS

The Bicycle Mayor Network is a global network of changemakers – initiated by Amsterdam based social enterprise BYCS – that radically accelerates cycling progress in cities worldwide. The individuals use the power of their network to influence politics and the broader public to start cycling. Bicycle mayors transform cities, cities transform the world.

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