What a joy to ride my bike through the insanely congested Bangalore streets, surrounded by a group of rambunctious bicyclists! The first anniversary of the Bangalore Critical Mass attracted about 50 riders and felt shockingly familiar, taking me right back to the first anniversary of our Critical Mass in 1993, when SFBC volunteers presented Critical Mass riders with a big birthday cake on the Panhandle. The Bangalore Critical Mass ended at "Food Street," a famous alley that’s evolved from a magnet for street vendors to a sort of Indian food mall.
But the ride isn’t nearly all that’s universal about our movement, I’ve come to learn.
Bengaluru, as Bangalore is now called, is a huge city of 6 million people. More so than the rest of India, it’s transformed in the past decade, becoming the Silicon Valley of South Asia and host to a large middle class with international tastes. Along with the wealth has come an abandonment of the bicycle, with only six percent of trips made by bike down from 16 percent a decade ago.
A small group of bike activists is aiming to change that.
They shun the classic Indian upright bicycles for mountain bikes, just as Americans have shunned old Schwinns. Many of them wear helmets, the only Indian bicyclists I’ve seen with them. And they go on recreational rides, posting their routes on MapMyRide.com and sharing information as on the sfbike mailing list.
And when it comes to political tactics, those ring a familiar tone. At least three organizations vie for attention, each bringing their own flavor. Two mostly social groups were apparent at the Mass: Go Green Go Cycling, an environmental group that aims to convince Bangaloreans of the benefits of bicycling for a cleaner, greener Earth. Their leader, Rao, hosts weekly rides and produces these really great long-sleeve shirts with their logo on them. The Bangalore Bikers’ Club seems more anarchistic, organized mostly online and mostly about rides, although they recently descended on a shopping mall to protest the lack of bicycle parking, and won! The groups announce each others’ events and donate to each others’ causes.
The most mainstream political group in Bengaluru is the Ride a Cycle Foundation. They’re the ones with the plans to curry favor with politicians, work the media, and try to think strategically about which levers to push and which fights to pick. I exchanged notes with two of the group’s leaders, Murali and Pradeep, who told me their strategy: focus on the children.
Pushing for policy changes to protect adult bicyclists who can afford scooters, motorcycles, or cars, is considered downright silly, and the political power of the poor who ride bicycles is almost nonexistent, and certainly not focused on bicycle safety. They are not part of the bicycle advocacy movement I saw.
So the bike advocates promote Safe Routes to School (their words) and got key politicians to join them in support of safe bicycling for children on National Children’s Day (held on the birthday of former Prime Minister Nehru who made children’s welfare a key priority). At Bangalore’s popular Ganesha festival, celebrating the elephantine Hindu god of wisdom — who removes all obstacles from your life and if you’re lucky the cars in the road ahead — Murali and Pradeep put Ganesha on a cycle and invited children to write essays and engage in bike races to win bicycles.
In the course of the conversation I remembered a talisman of my own I carry with me, ever since Chris Carlsson gave me a prayer card from the Catholic Patron Saint of bicycling, the Madonna del Ghisallo. It’s superstition and not religion, but indeed I carry around the card in my wallet like the rickshaw drivers have Ganesha stickers on their windshields. Pradeep and Murali were thrilled when I showed it to them, and together we wondered whether the Hindus could develop a god for bicycling the way the Catholics have a saint.
Not a bad idea, but we agreed, focusing on the children was probably best.