Riding Wired Donkeys - Cycling Culture from Berlin to Delhi

Posted by Magali Mander • Saturday, July 24. 2010 • Category: Crossing Cultures
I used to be a passionate cyclist in Berlin – now I cycle in Delhi. People have told me that Delhi used to have separate lanes for cyclists. Back then when South Delhi was still a conglomeration of villages, cars were the more exceptional mode of transportation. Sometime back the space was taken over by cars and planning was taken over by those who thought a modern city needed wide streets for cars rather than lanes for its inhabitants to walk on, or ride on their bikes – often affectionately referred to by Germans as their “Drahtesel” (a ‘donkey made out of wire’ in German language).

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The same idea was popular in my hometown Berlin some 60 years ago, too. Rebuilding the city after the war, huge areas were left empty so inner-city highways could be built and create any city planners’ dream of those times: the so-called ‘car-friendly’ city.

Fortunately, urban development was slower than green thinking. Early enough people realized that an inhabitant-friendly ecologic city was more desirable than exclusively ‘car-friendly’ cities. And finally, many of the vast empty spaces were converted into parks much to the delight of almost everybody.

Now you see hordes of people riding their bikes to work, university, school or even kindergarten, like in many other European cities. You see bicycles, tricycles, bicycles with small trailers transporting babies and little kids – I haven’t seen anyone transporting their grandma yet – and lately you can even see rickshaws cruising around the more touristy parts of the city.

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In some cities there are spaces, which make you feel like cyclists had taken over power in the streets. They ride where and how they like and car-owners better get used to being overtaken by a two-wheeler sporting at fast pace in 30km/h residential zones. Many cyclers routinely disobey traffic lights even though this – for those who are not familiar with German traffic rules – might cost them their license to drive cars.

Cycling has become fashion – first for those primarily concerned with the health of our planet or their own, and in the last years for almost everybody else, too. A nice bike – be it an old-timer, a racing bike or a “Klappfahrrad” (folding bike) – is the prestige object of the young and cool Berliner. This is comparable to owning a shiny new MacBook Pro or a pair of neon coloured pilot sunglasses.

Being a Berliner I can’t let go of the urge of riding by bicycle everywhere I want to go. Therefore, one of the first things I did in Delhi was to buy a cycle, precisely a neon-pink girls’ bike - a big change in my identity construction – as I used to be a passionate racing bike owner. Anyway, since the trend demands for a second cycle, a classic Indian model for men now complements the pink one.

So, how do I survive riding a bicycle out there on Delhi’s traffic inferno, you might wonder? “No problem” would be my answer.

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First of all you might have noticed that Delhi streets – even after having taken over the bicycle lanes – are cloaked with cars. Cars, which most of the time don’t move even the tiniest bit during rush hour. It’s a bit like riding through a labyrinth but it’s definitely better than spending hours waiting in a standing rickshaw, inhaling exhaust fumes from the truck next to you. Secondly seeing a foreign woman (or an office person and not a laborer?) on a bicycle seems to be a blow-off. Stopping cars (I suspect they stop because the driver, instead of pushing the accelerator, pushes the breaks to inspect the unusual sight) are easy to overtake – and off I ride, turning the stunned car-drivers to a distant sight within seconds. And even if they don’t stop or slow down, the least thing many car drivers do, is to overtake with a lot more than the usual distance between me and them when driving past. Maybe because they expect me to fall down any second, trying to tame my “wire donkey”. It seems that in order to find out how respectful car drivers can be, even in Delhi’s chaotic traffic, you will have to get on a bicycle first.

Riding a cycle in Delhi is fun! I have kids in my neighbourhood cheering “Germany, Germany” (“Berlin, Berlin” would be nicer but I can live with that), grandpas in wheelchairs raising the thumb when I ride by, security guards in my neighbourhood greeting me as “sporty madam-ji” and the dhobi wallah’s concerned question what happened to my bicycle when I walk past instead of riding my cycle. The auntie living next door even asked me to teach her how to ride a cycle! (Maybe I should note here that I am not that irresponsible. That would be as if I decided to teach my own 100 years old grandma to change from her wheelchair to a skateboard as her regular mode of transportation.)

There are gender-specific reactions, too, but I won’t go into detail here. I guess the sight of a woman riding her bicycle used to be very unusual in Europe, too – at some point in history that is. But I guess it is never inappropriate to change perceptions of what is appropriate and what is not.

The question remains, where the future of Delhi’s city planning is headed. It would be a euphemism to say that Delhi is a car-friendly city – but this doesn’t make it a bicycle-friendly city either. Fact is that the streets, despite ongoing construction of flyovers all over town, will not be able to provide enough space for those cars, which are on the streets today already. Let alone the roughly one thousand new cars permitted to Delhi’s streets every day.

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Imagine riding a bicycle became as fashionable in Delhi as it is in other cities. If riding a bicycle did not remain only the mode of transportation for the economically deprived parts of population… if the big fat cars that seem to decide over right-and-wrong even in Delhi’s smallest streets would be overtaken by bicycles… Ha, I catch myself thinking about the small social changes that might come along with the cycling trend I dream of.
Honestly, I have no idea where they could fit cycle lanes onto the already overcrowded streets. But I guess it’s wise not to wait with riding your cycle until someone makes space for you. Jump on your cycle, make the critical mass grow, and let’s reclaim the streets!

Since the Delhi government is now constructing bicycle lanes (e.g. on the infamous BRT corridors) to combat global warming – an action taken only after the Delhi Cycling Club (DCC), a non-profit group dedicated to making Delhi a cyclist-friendly city has submitted a memorandum – you can reduce your carbon-footprint on this earth easily. Be it for reasons of coolness, fitness, because you can’t afford a car, or may it be because your Wii is broken and your computer can’t provide you with your daily anti-couch-potato program anymore.

Reclaim the streets!
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