Santhana Selvan, Bicycle Mayor, Hyderabad speaks to Mangala Chandran
How did you get into the spirit of cycling? What has been your journey?
I used to love cycling during my school days in Madurai. My cycle was quite ordinary – no gears or fancy accessories! With this, I cycled around nearby villages. Initially, it was just for normal rides to buy vegetables and other stuff like that, but later I found that I was becoming a serious cycling enthusiast.
I joined a cycling group, the largest in Chennai, called We are Chennai Cycling Group (WCCG). The group had 20 chapters across the city. I was very sincere and I kept going there on a daily basis. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of new people – doctors, advocates, IPS officers and corporate executives. I found a lot of happiness there, waking up early every morning, maintaining a fit lifestyle and meeting new people while cycling, and it naturally occurred to me that this happiness should be spread across more people.
That is when I resolved to spread news about cycling. I started visiting schools and corporates on Fridays. I would visit some companies of our other riders to talk about cycling. I found that most of them gave me the opportunity to talk about the benefits of cycling and getting people to take it up.
Actually, at this time I did not know that I was getting into cycling advocacy, but I later realized that this was something with a clear purpose. You could say that I had found something I liked – a life purpose. Cycling is now something I am passionate about and when I advocate it to others, I speak of the happiness that I actually experience for myself.
What impact did cycling have on your regular job?
I have over twenty years of experience in the software industry. I work as a program manager in a large consumer product company. Here, my skills are mainly projects execution and making things happen. On the other hand, my passion, which I discovered eight to nine years back has been cycling. Another purpose of mine is community building. I have found my path for the next 25 years in the area of sustainable transportation and mobility, where my skills, passion and purpose all come together.
How did shifting to Hyderabad make a difference.
When I came to Hyderabad, I saw a significant difference. In Chennai, we see cyclists everywhere, we are able to make out their movements. In Hyderabad, the first difference is the landscape itself. It is actually up and down here; in the sense it is a little hilly. That’s the first challenge. I also saw far fewer cyclists. Originally, Hyderabad used to be a city of cycles as well, but that was 50 or 60 years back. With modernization and globalization, everybody started to adopt to private motor vehicles. In a sense, I saw a huge opportunity here to make an impact.
That’s when I got the opportunity to become a bicycle mayor. It is an honorary and voluntary role given by PYCS, an Amsterdam-based social enterprise, where we act as change-makers and catalysts to promote cycling in cities.
What kind of changes have you managed to effect? What are the objectives you are working towards now?
I started expanding my scope to include not just bicycles, but also sustainable transportation, walking and public transportation. There were different cycling groups, spread across different areas of the city. I brought them all together, from a fitness perspective, as a cycling community of Hyderabad. We needed to show up in strength to the government and other influential bodies. The government actually took note of the organized activities.
Bicycles have been there for a long time, but because of globalization and modernization, things have changed and bicycles have fallen into disuse. Largely, these days, people do not adopt bicycles for the transportation or livelihood like they did 50 years back. However, they do reach out to activities like cycling as a fitness vehicle.
What we are trying to do now is to engage bicycles for fitness, active mobility and sustainable transportation. We have a dream where we want to see all the children and grandchildren use bicycles for commuting to schools without any safety concerns from parents. I would like to say that we have achieved this to a large extent.
In order to do achieve our dream we have actually adopted our BYCS vison. We have chosen to call this mission ‘Reset Hyderabad with Cycling 50 to 30’. This means that by the year 2030 we want to see all the residents of Hyderabad use bicycles for 50% of their transportation needs. When we say 50% of transportation, it means that within a five km radius of the home, they should be able to use the bicycle. It’s really a matter of choice. We can choose what mode of transportation we can actually use. If the distance is less than 1 km, we may choose to go walking, and if less than 5 kms then a cycle can be used. If the distance is more than 5 kms, public transportation can be used. This is what we are advocating.
There are also various behavioral changes we want to see; the bicycle should be kept outside our home, easy to take and go. While a fitness cycle or high-end model can be kept inside, the normal cycle can be kept outside for utility purposes.
What are the common challenges you have faced?
I see the challenges as a two-way street. On one side, we need to influence the government for implanting the bicycle infrastructure and active mobility infrastructure. The second track is to get more and more people engaged, so that everybody without a cycle gets and owns one. But these two tracks, one influencing the government and getting more people to adopt cycling cannot go without each another. They have to be implemented in parallel. Infrastructure is a big hurdle. Many people fear that they cannot come out on the main roads.
How has the response been to your projects?
The outlook is very positive. About 4000 active fitness cyclists are connected via Whatsapp, and we are talking about another two to three lakhs livelihood cyclists who are not completely connected, but are benefitting. The government has actually been responding very well lately, with a lot of activities we have been planning for long.
There was a big and important project we did called ‘Relief Riders Hyderabad’. Hyderabad was the 2nd city to adopt the project. That was initially started by Bangalore Bicycle Mayor Sathya Sankaran. As part of this initiative, we delivered medical supplies and essential food to vulnerable and senior citizens and especially Covid patients during the pandemic. Around 300 cyclists were deployed across the city with our community. This was a huge impact we made, where we proved the fact that we are part of the solution on the road, and not a problem on the road. We did good press. Our presence was felt and it helped to pull together all the cycling groups into one. ‘Relief Riders Hyderabad’ became an umbrella group. When I called upon volunteers automatically with a week, 300 cyclists joined again.
Now that we were together, we could also have a show of strength. Back in February this year, we initiated a new concept, something that was not done in India before called the ‘Hyderabad Cycling Revolution’. More than 700 cyclists came together with placards and shoutouts to ask the government about what exactly we needed. This was well highlighted across the city, government officials, the police and other influential authorities. Everyone came to know about the cycling community. This made a lot of difference.
This actually got triggered when a cyclist, Nitin Agarwal, died because of a drink-and-drive accident by a car driver. He was our friend who was going through the leftmost lane and moreover at 5:30 in the morning. This car rammed into him. For no fault of our cyclist, he died and his family was left behind.
What message would you like to give to the public and the authorities?
You can categorize it as 5 E’s:
First, Education: At the Regional Transport Authority (RTA) level itself, we wanted the education to be strengthened. Especially, education about the cyclist. Any motorist needs to – see the cyclist, recognize the cyclist and respect the cyclist.
They need to understand that we too share the road. That should be a part of their education. There should be some kind of proper training and education to the motorist about the pedestrian and the cyclist, before the license is issued.
Second, Enforcement: It is about strict laws. For example, the drink-and-drive law. I am sure the drunken driver right now must be roaming free on the roads. It should be non-bailable offense and it also has to be stringent. People have to be afraid when they touch the steering wheel after drinking.
Third, Engineering: Bicycle infrastructure includes a comprehensive bicycle lane network. All these bicycle lanes will be useless if they are not connected. You should be able to go from point A to point B via bicycle. Parking is also part of engineering. Cycles which cost `20,000 to `30,000 need to be parked safely, not randomly.
Public bicycle sharing is another aspect. Even if someone doesn’t have a bicycle, they should be able to pick up a cycle from the metro station. Today many cities are promoting public sharing but what is happening is that they are implementing it in one or two places only. This is not an acceptable way to do things.
Fourth, Empowerment, & Fifth, Encouragement:
Empowerment and Encouragement can come from the government by giving cycles to rural and needy population or suburban population like the girls going to school. If cycles are given at a subsidized price, or given free by government more vulnerable sections will be empowered. For example, if a maid gets a cycle, her life changes. Domestic helpers can go to more than one house, and have more liberty and freedom. For the poor, having a cycle can reduce dependence on others. This
leads to more productivity, economy and health.
Lastly, sustainable transportation needs to be implemented or improved across the cities, number of fleets, number of routes and the efficiency of transportation need to be increased and properly planned. Bus stations and the bus infrastructure need to be improved. Metro connectivity needs to be increased and even in the Metro we have been fighting for the facility to carry the bicycles inside.
Are you seeing any improvements so far?
There is significant improvement in Hyderabad after we started with these mild activist programs. One important project which government has approved is identifying all the zones of the Corporation for model cycling tracks—more than 100km – on a trial basis.
The second biggest project or success in our city is a 21km to 42km cycling track in the process of construction with a solar panel on top. That’s something for the fitness and leisure enthusiasts, and it could be considered for cycling promotion in the city. People will be interested in cycling, there they can rent a cycle, have fun, interact, it’s a single safe road which is completely in the outer ring road along the service road, which is being built right now. They can actually ride under the shade of solar panel. There are eateries; it’s a fun family place where more cycling promotions will happen.
The cycles need to be used for 50% of the transportation needs; going for groceries or vegetables, getting milk or meat, or anything else they need. These behavioral changes have to happen.