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How Cycling Could Revolutionize Gender Equality In India

India is one of the most gender unequal countries in the world. But the humble bicycle is helping women reclaim space in cities, opening up job prospects, and even encouraging their education opportunities.

An Indian woman pushing a bike.

"Power the Pedal" is encouraging Indian women to cycle.

Rahul Goel, Avinash Chanchal and Vinit Gupta*

“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world,” said American Civil Rights leader Susan B. Anthony, about 125 years ago.

Mobility across the world is often gendered and men and women have different travel patterns. This is partly because women often have greater household and childcare responsibilities than men. Their travel needs are often dominated by accompanying children to school or going to the market for household needs. Women also tend to use different modes of transport than men. What’s more, these gender differences are relatively greater in India than in other countries in the world.

India is among the most gender unequal countries in the world; it has one of the lowest female labor participation rates (that is, the percentage of women who are working), along with a wide gender gap.

Many women in India work from home (such as in handloom or textile businesses), depriving them of a social network and independent income. Those who work outside of their homes depend greatly on walking and public transport.

Men, on the other hand, have access to a greater range of transport modes, including bicycles, motorcycles and cars. While the household ownership of motorized two-wheelers and cars has grown rapidly in the last couple of decades, this has hardly improved independent mobility among women since they make up only 10% of all license holders in India.

To get a sense of why women choose to cycle, we talked to a number of women cyclists in Delhi and neighboring cities who opened up about their experiences while cycling, the benefits and joys they experienced as well as the challenges they faced.

The "Power to the Pedal" campaign

Pavitra, 41, originally from Nepal, has been living in Zamrudpur in South Delhi for many years. She walks two kilometers every day to reach her workplace in Kailash Colony, where she works as a domestic worker.

“I had to walk every day because I can’t afford to have my own private transport. I am hardly making (enough) money to get necessities like food,” Pavitra said.

For the last two months, however, Pavitra has been cycling. Pavitra is part of a community of women who wish to reclaim city space by riding bicycles, as part of Greenpeace India’s "Power the Pedal" campaign. For several of these people, cycling is their only option for earning a livelihood.

Nandi, 48, and her husband Amarkant, 54, have a similar story. Originally from Bhilwara, Rajasthan, the couple are currently residing in one of the slums in South Delhi. Every day, both of them cycle around 20-25 km to sell balloons at various markets across the national capital. Due to the exclusionary nature of public transport in Delhi, Amarkant and Nandi say cycling is their only option.

“We don’t have any other option. Over the years, the city has got fancy air-conditioned buses and the metro. But I never felt they were meant for people like us. They don’t even allow us to travel with these balloons,” they said.

Cycling provides freedom

For some, the cycle provides freedom. Neelu, 26, a resident of the urban village, Ramghad, in Gurgaon, says that cycling provides here with the freedom to move around. Neelu works as a housekeeper at a high-rise apartment complex near by. Every day, her husband drops her off at work on a bicycle and ever day, she, herself, rides her bicycle to the marker.

“On Sundays, I like to take my kids to different places on the bicycle,” Neelu said.

Shabnam, too, works as domestic help in multiple houses in Gurgaon. For her, cycling is the only way to commute to and from the different colonies in which these houses are located. She likes to cycle every day, but is also concerned about increasing traffic on the streets, even after cycling for the past five years. Due to this fear, she usually avoids traveling during peak hours.

It is also true that men often use faster modes of transport than those used by women. This gives men a greater ability to access jobs and other destinations that are far from where they live. Women, on the other hand, are often forced to take jobs closer to their homes, which greatly limits their choices.

Five Indian women hold their fist in the air while standing next to their bikes.

Cycling helps Indian women save time and money.

Greenpeace India

Women's time poverty

Women’s dependence on slower modes of transport also worsens their "time poverty". Since women have far greater household responsibilities, when they also work outside the home, they are not left with any time to relaxation, socializing, recreation, or self-care. With faster modes of transport, they can reach their destinations quicker and have time and energy left to do all these things.

Cycling can provide these benefits as it is about three times faster than walking — a 30-minute walk will take just ten minutes by cycle. For shorter distances, cycling can even be faster than public transport.

Women’s dependence on slower modes of transport worsens their "time poverty".

While using a bus, for instance, a lot of time is spent besides actually traveling in the vehicle, including time taken to walk to the stop, wait for the bus and then walk to the final destination. Cycling, besides providing the ability to navigate crowded streets faster, saves on all this additional time.

In addition to saving time, cycling also, of course, saves money. In comparison to a motorcycle or a car, it is much more affordable to buy, use and maintain a cycle.

The other obvious benefits of cycling are for the environment. Cycling generates zero direct emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gasses; it generates almost no noise, as opposed to other modes of transport that make Indian streets unbearably loud.

Cycling also has societal benefits in that it can be empowering for women. It gives them the freedom to travel on their own and at a time of their choosing. They can also explore places that they previously could not access because they were too far away or because there was no public transport available.

Cycling levels in Indian cities

The affordability and ease of access provided by cycling are why it remains a popular activity in Indian cities. According to Census 2011 data, in many cities, such as Chandigarh, Kanpur, Cuttack and Raipur, 30-35% of workers used cycles to go to work. In Kolkata’s metro areas, almost one in every four workers cycles to work.

While these figures are lower in other large cities, like Delhi and Chennai, 10% of all workers still use cycles to commute. While cycling use is high in India, it is mostly men who use this mode of transport. Among all the workers who reported using cycles in Census 2011, only 4% were women. This gender distribution is far more skewed in India than in most countries across the world.

Furthermore, of those women, many are likely to be pillion riders – a distinction not made in the Census. It is this gender gap in cycling that needs to be addressed so that women can also enjoy many benefits that cycling promises.

A patriarchal state shows the way

In India, studies have shown evidence of how certain measures can be used to encourage cycling among girls and the many benefits that can be achieved from such a transformation. Interestingly, this evidence comes from Bihar, which is regarded as a highly patriarchal state.

In 2006, the Bihar government started a new conditional cash transfer scheme under which girls enrolled in secondary school were given cash to buy bicycles. The objective was to improve accessibility to schools for students, which is particularly important when there aren’t many schools close to villages.

Access to cycling saves time and ensures safety.

According to a study, led by Karthik Muralidharan at the University of San Diego, this cycle distribution scheme was successful in improving school enrolment among girls. The difference in the enrollment rates of boys and girls was significantly reduced. Importantly, these benefits were greater among girls who lived further away from schools.

Not only is walking slower and more energy intensive, it also exposes girls to potential harassment on the streets. Access to cycling saves time and ensures safety; a great example of the potential of cycling to bring social change.

A revolution in the making

Besides providing immediate educational benefits, there were other long-term benefits among the beneficiaries of the cycle distribution scheme. Another study, led by Shabana Mitra at IIM, Bengaluru, found that the scheme beneficiaries were more likely to complete their education. More education also made them aspirational, and they were more likely to look for employment outside agriculture and to delay their marriages. However, a lack of college education and employment opportunities meant that these aspirations often remain unfulfilled.

Many other states have followed suit and have some version of a free cycle distribution scheme. In 2013, for example, the Assam government launched a special scheme to provide free bicycles to girl students from families that were below the poverty line. This scheme increased the opportunities for mobility and socialization for school girls, as claimed by the government.

At the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, we conducted a detailed investigation of 120 cycle deaths over a period of three years (2016-2018). We found that 70% of all crashes in which cyclists died included a vehicle hitting them from behind while traveling in the same direction. These kinds of crashes can be drastically reduced with the provision of segregated cycle tracks, separating cyclists from the stream of fast-moving motorized vehicles.

We also found that cyclists have a greater likelihood of being killed on major roads and that most of the cyclists who died did so on a handful of road sections. This means that the provision of cycle tracks on major roads alone can ensure greater safety among cyclists.

Hence, it would not be wrong to say that bicycles have been the wheels of change and Greenpeace India’s "Power The Pedal" campaign is knitting together a cycle revolution.

Yet, certain points still require major overhauls: transport planning must acknowledge the high levels of gender inequality in Indian cities and how this impacts travel; investment in transportation should be aimed towards narrowing the gender gap in mobility, and so on.

*Rahul Goel is a visiting faculty at Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre, IIT Delhi; Avinash Chancal is Campaign Manager at Greenpeace India; and Vinit Gupta is a freelance photojournalist.

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Photo of two men talking while sitting at a table at a bar un Buenos Aires, with a poster of Maradona on the wall behind them.

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