INDIA'S FIRST BICYCLE MAYOR SHARES HER STORY

Nikita Lalwani is the first bicycle Mayor in India. We had a chance to have a conversation with her, know her better and understand how the program is working in one of our own cities.

BICYCLE-MAYOR

The Bicycle Mayor Program is a global initiative to represent and accelerate the progress of cycling in cities.

If you visit the Netherlands, you'll notice that there are more bicycles than people. It has a reputation of being a great cycling destination. Nowhere else is cycling this established. 

BYCS an Amsterdam-based social enterprise initiated and coordinates the program – they are now working with local partners to set up Mayors in cities around the world.

Bicycle Mayors are the face and voice of cycling in a city. They accelerate change by uniting the public and private realms to uncover the massive economic, health, and environmental benefits of increased cycling capacity.  They identify solutions to local problems and work with others to ensure those ideas come true. 

In June 2016, the world’s first Bicycle Mayor was elected in Amsterdam. Now, they are active on every continent.

Nikita Lalwani is the first bicycle Mayor in India. We had a chance to have a conversation with her, know her better and understand how the program is working in one of our own cities.

 

Nikita is 28 years old, the Bicycle Mayor of Baroda and also an Instrumentation Engineer. She is from Kota and has been brought up there till the age of 12. 

After successfully completing her engineering from NIT Surat, she has been working for the last 6 years.

What was the beginning of your relationship with cycling? 

I started Cycling really young. If you look at it, I've been cycling through different phases of my life mainly for commuting to school, to coaching classes, to work etc. Infact from 3rd to 8th class, I went to school on my bike. 

I remember this one time after class 10, I pulled off my first stunt to go to a scholarship event on my own. It was long distance and for the first time, I'd ventured out of my usual route to go and gain something for myself.

Through my 11th and12th standard, I used my bike to commute to my coaching classes.

I went to NIIT Surat and In my final year, I got a cycle from a senior and then there was no stopping me from exploring my biking skills. I soon took up swimming classes in my final year and cycled to those classes too.

When I started working, for a year or more, I tried different types of commutes, auto, sometimes having my friends pick me up but soon realized that all these methods were taking me upto 15-20 minutes for 4kms because of traffic jams. It was really very frustrating.

In about a month's time, I got myself a bike and in a week my roommate got a cycle and a few more employees in my company started cycling too. A few more wanted to but all they needed was a push. This cycling to work culture had slowly started emerging in our office. 

Then I visited Germany for a while and saw that a lot of people are using cycles as a smart commute choice. Everybody cycled to work or used it for short distance commutes and to even practice sports etc. 

I came back and I started working on the initiative of cycling cities. 
 

We’re a little bit curious about your past, most specifically at what moment did you decide “well, this is it, I’m going to be Cyclist?

These days, the term "cyclist" is usually referred to people who take up cycling as a sport with heavy equipment, people who get up in the morning ready to start riding. That's the image of a cyclist.

When my office was 4km, I was cycling 8km a day and when it shifted further, I cycled 15km a day. Then when I attended a cycling event, a person said to me. "you know she doesn't go on long rides, she is not a cyclist" and I said, "I'm coming staright from my office, I've already cycled for 8kms." Just because I'm not using gear and other equipment, it doesn't mean that I'm not a cyclist. So the image of a cyclist in India is very peculiar, either it's a poor man's vehicle or it's a rich man's sport. 

For the last 4 years I have been using a cycle as a major mode of transport, even at a time when I could have taken up any other form of transport, I refused the same. This makes me a cyclist. 

What does it mean to be a woman cyclist in India?

I am in Gujarat so I would say that it's been very nice and comparatively safe. I've been stared at a couple of time but nothing more than that really. I can't say how it is in other cities because I haven't been there to really comment.

To me, when a woman is on a cycle, it is a symbol of empowerment, it is a symbol of freedom and it shows that she is a strong lady. She's pedaling, she's not on a motor vehicle. People mostly don't try to mess with girls who are on a cycle, I feel this. It appears that I am capable of giving them a tough fight if something happens.
 

Describe Vadodara from a cyclist point of view.   

Vadodara is a city of 20 million people and the farthest distance would probably be 10-20kms. It's pretty circular in nature with a lot of interconnecting lanes so it's easy to find many inside routes/lanes to reach from one point to another in case of a congested route. You can always choose and find the best route for yourself.

The city is very compact but not very well structured if you compare it to European cities but is definitely a decent city to cycle around. 

Hostile behavior from other vehicles towards cyclists is there but you'll have to maneuver your way around nicely. If you're a new cyclist, it might take some time. Traffic is crazy, people here don't have any traffic sense. So it is difficult for cyclists, even pedestrians. I haven't faced any accidents or mishaps myself because I know how to maneuver my way around.
 

What is the Bicycle Mayor Programme?

Bicycle mayor is a global programme where they elect or appoint people in smaller cities where not too many people are working on commute cycling like Baroda. Most Cycling Clubs focus on leisure cycling, endurance or sport.

So the Bicycle Mayor Program concentrates on people who are promoting cycling for transportation and empowering them through technical tools, skills everything. This is a two-year voluntary and non-political role. We are equipped with tools kits that enable us to interact with people and make our voices reach the different stakeholders, schools, corporate companies and more.

 

Three focus areas for me are;

 

1. Have more people cycle in corporate groups because a lot of people live within 5kms of their workplace but they still come in their own cars. It's a difficult situation because already the streets are so congested.
 
2. How to have more students and children use cycles in schools and colleges.

3. Have road safety and infrastructure for cyclists but I realized that it's not going to be so easy in the 2-year period so I kept that point for the future. 

I made a new point of talking more about cycling in different platforms, forums everywhere. That's what I am doing through social media, events, tours and different places where I meet people

How did you become a Bicycle Mayor? 

A friend of mine was interning with the Dutch NGO, he posted on Facebook about the program. I was interested and wanted to write to them but beofre I could, I had already received an email from them. I shared all the work that I've done, initiatives taken, pilot projects that included "Gift a cycle," "heritage cycle rides" and various other activities.

So they made me Bicycle Mayor, the first Bicycle Mayor in India. 
 

How has your tenure as Bicycle Mayor of Vadodara been so far? Key Highlights – Key Learnings? 

I have talked about cycling a lot, about all the different issues. How people react on the road, how people don't allow me to park, the issues that are faced by kids etc. 

We have been doing many events. We did one bicycle parade where we talked about cycling safety constituting cycling rides and duties. 

Now there are elections for Bicycle Mayor in Bangalore and there's someone in Guwahati also. I am also getting requests from different cities to understand how this program works, how I am working on it and what all is needed for them to be a part of it. 

Do you also use cycling for commuting?

Yes, I use cycling for commuting, like I said 80% of my commutes are on my bicycle.

How often do you ride?

I ride at least 5 or 6 times a week

Do you prefer to cycle in the city rather than the countryside? 

Yes, I prefer to cycle in the city and once in a while, I prefer to go on long rides so I go to the countryside too.

What kind of Cycling do you do?

I mostly do commute cycling and a little bit of leisure cycling. I have also taken part in a couple of triathlons and duathlons but I am not working on it diligently since I don't have a road bike. 
 

What is your preferred choice of bike?

My choice of bike is a hybrid bike.

What accessories/gear do you find mandatory for your practice?

I am using a helmet mandatorily, nothing else for now. I use the head and tail lights once in a while during winter. For long rides, I have gloves, the bottle cage and a carrier which is useful when I go grocery shopping. 

What do you look for when you’re buying a new bike? 

The bike should be lightweight, a hybrid for multi-use and multi-purposes. I also require gears for the flyovers here. I recommend shock absorbers for kids cycles. 
 

What are the best and worst things about riding a bike in India? 

Some of the best things are its Impact on the environment, pollution, and on traffic. 

But the best thing really is how cycling impacts your lifestyle, your health, your happiness. It's the biggest thing you're doing for yourself. 

All these benefits for the environment will subside when you realize the benefits it has for your body. When I'm cycling, I'm at my creative best, all my thoughts and ideas come to me when I'm cycling. It's also my way of dealing with stress. 
 

What are the challenges you’ve faced so far and what measures have you taken to overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges is that most people who commute during the week refuse to come for weekend events etc. There is a feeling that they've done their share of cycling during the week and those that are part of sports clubs are more inclined toward leisure cycling and not commuting. So it's always the way you present cycling to people. With cycling cities, the aim really is to reintroduce cycling for fun, leisure, commute, exploration and more.

Then there are challenges in terms of roads, the traffic etc. I have learned discipline, patience, and tolerance. I plan better when I head out in terms of dressing, sun tanning, which road to take.

What surprising lessons have you learned along the way?

For starters, I have become more tolerant and patient on the road.

Also, earlier I was in the notion that people should commute now I have learned that we need to introduce cycling to people in such a way that they find it interesting, that they use it for different purposes, rides, leisure, adventure and sometimes for commuting. When they feel the joy of commuting, they will keep it as a practice for their lifetime. 

This is how we re-introduce cycling to people because everyone has cycled in their childhood and they don't anymore. 

What’s next for you?

I am going to Brazil to Rio De Janeiro for the Velocity conference which I attended last year but this year I am selected as a speaker to present the case of cycling cities in Indian cities and how cycling helps the health of people. 

The case I am presenting is "happiness for life." 2-3 decades back people were into a lot of physical activities but today there are machines that help us do the physical part but mentally we're always stressed and worked up. There are no physical activities which are also the causes for a sedentary lifestyle. To balance this, cycling could really be a good option. 

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