Devapriyo Das, Harpreet Kaur Bajaj

July 6, 2023

Pedal power: Realising India’s potential for sustainable mobility

Urban transport infrastructure in India is built for almost anything with a motor attached. Bicycling offers a zero-carbon low-cost alternative. Here are four actions to help commuters make the switch.

E-bikes parked on a pavement in city in India

Most trips in India’s large cities are by car, bus, motorbikes, and three- wheelers. Yet about 10% of all trips are by pedal-powered bicycles, and the country tops the list of nations where people ride a bicycle at least once a week.

This makes sense given the majority of these trips stretch under 5 kilometres, and public amenities are often located within a five-minute bicycle ride. The climate, economic, and health benefits of switching to bikes would be enormous (see fact box below), but India is only just starting its cycling journey.

"In India today, it can even be unsafe to walk on the roads, let alone cycle. The demand for cycling exists hidden in the background, but it will not become clear until you build bicycle infrastructure,"

Harpreet Kaur Bajaj
Senior Lead Transport Economist in Smart Mobility at Ramboll

Harpreet conducted a survey in the first quarter of 2023 amongst people in low-income groups to understand their concerns about using bicycles as a mode of transport in India. Her recommendations, if implemented, could result in a mindset change towards people who cycle.

The benefits of cycling for India

  • :

    According to a 2019 report by The Energy Resources Institute, a sustainability thinktank, about 60% of trip lengths in Indian cities, with mixed land-use patterns, are under 5 kilometres, and about 80% are under 10 kilometres. These are ideal distances for bicycling and could help India move to a zero fossil fuel mode of commuting

  • :

    If India widely adopted bicycling as a form of transport, for example, by replacing half of all motorised two- and- four- wheeler trips under 5 kilometres with bicycle trips, the country could save more than USD 25 billion per year, or 1.6% of GDP (at 2016 rates), the report adds.

  • :

    Making the switch would also help avoid about 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, provide health benefits owing to reduced air pollution and greater physical activity by commuters, and save on commuting time.

The wheels are turning

Since 2017, local governments in India have worked with private sector companies to create bike lanes and bike-sharing schemes. Together, they run awareness campaigns to boost cycling in smaller cities like Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Bhubhaneshwar, Pune and Indore, as well as regional metropolises such as Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru. The trend accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic when bicycling became a safer alternative to using crowded public transport.

Although more commuters use bicycles today, it remains difficult to achieve scale in deploying bicycling infrastructure and establishing a culture of bicycling as a form of sustainable transport.

“In India, the cycle is considered a poor man’s vehicle and is mostly used by the low-income group for commuting to work. People in the middle- or- higher- income groups own a bicycle for the purposes of sport, fun, or fitness. We need to work towards bringing a change in mindset to regard bicycling as a convenient, fast, and safe mode of transport for all income groups,” Harpreet says.

Delivering that change requires dedicated public funding in India for sustainable mobility, and new financing models to spur investment by public and private sectors into bicycling infrastructure and bike-sharing schemes. It also requires more awareness activities, such as educating citizens in how to access and pay for shared bikes, helping reduce the incidence of bike theft and vandalism.

These investments could, in turn, benefit existing and planned urban mass rapid transport systems. “India is fast developing metro rail systems in many cities. Cycling can become an effective and sustainable mode of transport for first mile and last mile connectivity to these metro rail systems,” Harpreet explains.

How to pick up the pace?

Harpreet recommends four actions to boost the uptake of cycling:

  1. Identify residential areas with large concentrations of service-sector workers (those with mid-to-low level incomes) and provide them access to bike share programmes and bicycle pathways.
  2. Provide legal safeguards for cyclists, such as enforcing penalties for disrespect, unsafe behaviour, or traffic violations against cyclists.
  3. Build bike lanes and related infrastructure such as streetlights, traffic lights, and intersections to make traffic friendly for bicycles. Provide shared bicycle schemes at inter-modal hubs to encourage last-mile connectivity by bicycle, rather than by car.
  4. Influence behaviour change through pro-cycling awareness campaigns, enforcing car-free zones at morning rush hour, and supporting those who bicycle to work by offering at-work changing facilities and organising bicycling competitions.

Harpreet believes Ramboll has a key role to play in the adoption of bicycling infrastructure for sustainable mobility in India. This includes building awareness of bicycle infrastructure with decision makers and supporting campaigns with cities and the private sector to improve conditions for those who bicycle to work.

“We need to explain in layman’s terms the benefits of switching to bikes from other forms of transport and show what the benefits are in practice,” she says. “We need to get the message out there that bicycles are a low-cost, convenient mode of transport that reduces air pollution and traffic congestion whilst improving health and access to work.”

Did you know?

  • : 9 in 10

    At least 9 in 10 urban Indians believe cycling plays an important role in reducing carbon emissions.

  • : 88%

    of urban Indians believe cycling plays an important part in reducing traffic.

  • : 8 in 10

    urban Indians want new roads and infrastructure to emphasise bicycles over automobiles.

  • : 55%

    At least 55% of urban Indians polled believe cycling is extremely dangerous in their area.

  • : 6 indicators

    Most bicycle friendly city analyses are based on six indicators: the weather, bicycle usage, crime and safety, infrastructure, bike sharing opportunities, and awareness events.

Sources: Ipsos Cycling Across the World Survey 2022 World Economic Forum Global Bicycle Cities Index 2022

Want to know more?

  • Harpreet Kaur Bajaj

    Senior Lead Transport Economist, Smart Mobility

    Not available

Report: Walking and cycling data

Cities around the world need to create more walking and cycling opportunities to help reach their sustainability and climate goals

Together with more than 18 public and private sector partners we published a report in 2023, investigating pedestrian and cycling data collection practices, challenges, and gaps, and benchmarking the available data sources against the most common indicators.

Download the report

View all

Incorporating social value in urban transformation

Enhancing quality of life, equity, and diversity within urban communities through inclusive engagement, assessments, and a solid business case.

More than half the world’s population dwells in urban areas today, rising to 6 billion people by 2041. Our liveability experts explain why nature, culture, and human welfare are all needed to make cities liveable.