Bicycle mayors help urban residents reduce their carbon footprints and build a sustainable future.
Community ride to promote bicycle-friendly neighborhoods in Silvassa. (Photograph courtesy Matrushri Shetty)
What if there was a simple, inexpensive way to reduce your contribution to air pollution, improve your health and have some fun all at the same time?
Meet bicycle mayors, a grassroots network of cycling enthusiasts who are doing their best to get more people pedaling in 52 cities in India.
The bicycle mayors
“Bicycle mayors are people who have a passion for cycling, but who also want to bring about change in their communities because they understand that cycling can bring about important changes in how we live in our urban settings,” says Matrushri P. Shetty, director of operations and development for the BYCS India Foundation. The Bengaluru-based foundation works in association with BYCS, an Amsterdam-based nonprofit that has bicycle mayors active in 39 countries.
In 2022, Shetty was selected for the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. “The IVLP gave me perspective on the common challenges India and the United States are facing,” she says. “It also gave me a broader understanding of the post-pandemic needs—more emphasis than ever on preventive medicine and environmental health.”
Road to ‘mayorship’
Selection of bicycle mayors, who are all volunteers, is a very rigorous process. “Anyone can apply,” says Shetty, “but they must submit a work plan for what they would do to promote cycling in their city and get endorsements.”
“My goal was to create a more bike-friendly city where cycling was seen as a safe, convenient and enjoyable mode of transportation,” says Ashik Jain, an architect, urban planner and bicycle mayor in Pune, Maharashtra. “By encouraging more people to take up cycling and promoting better infrastructure and policies to support them, I hoped to create a healthier, more sustainable and more livable community for everyone.”
A cleaner future
The BYCS India Foundation envisions “an inclusive, resilient and livable urban future where the majority of the Indian urban population adopts the bicycle for daily trips.”
Those daily trips can make a big difference. A 2021 study in Europe found that using a bicycle instead of a car even once per day reduced each rider’s carbon footprint by about 0.5 tons over a year, representing a 67 percent decrease in an average person’s transportation emissions.
“Each city faces its own challenges, but our goal is to get more people in India to use bicycles for daily transportation,” says Shetty. “Cycling ridership in India is hard to quantify, but we estimate that about 13 percent of workers use bicycles daily, and we want to increase that number.”
Bicycle mayors are most active in Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Guwahati and Pimpri Chinchwad, Shetty says.
In addition to promoting cycling, bicycle mayors often take an active role in helping their communities in other ways like helping distribute medicine to COVID-19 patients.
“When the title is used appropriately, it is magical,” says Santhana Selvan, an IT professional and bicycle mayor in Hyderabad, Telangana, noting that bicycle mayors were an important asset to their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we were operating the project Relief Riders in Hyderabad, we delivered medicine and essentials to senior citizens and COVID-19 patients,” says Selvana. “We proved that cyclists are not a problem on the road, but a solution, performing community services. It was very satisfying to help the elderly and needy. I feel I have found my purpose.”
Similarly, Swarupa Shah, yoga trainer in Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, says she became a bicycle mayor to motivate as many people as possible to use bicycles. “I wanted to encourage housewives and more children to use bicycles and build a strong cycling community for a better tomorrow. That was only possible by becoming a bicycle mayor.”
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.
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