When GV Dasarathi pulls up his bicycle at a traffic intersection on his way to work in India’s InfoTech city, Bangalore, heads turn.
Bicycles may be the most popular two-wheeler on India’s roads, but the millions who use them to commute and to transport goods and family in India’s towns and villages certainly don’t wear white helmets, fluorescent jackets or biking gloves.
Through his attire and vehicle of choice, Mr Dasarathi, 48 and director of a software products development company, makes a potent statement for an alternative mode of daily transport in the choked roads of India’s Silicon Valley.
Cycling to work makes more and more sense for the city’s well-heeled professionals – nearly three million vehicles clog 500km (300 miles) of Bangalore’s gridlocked roads, with 1,000 new vehicles added every day.
This also make it one of India’s most polluted cities; in some areas, air pollution levels are five times higher than permissible limits.
Concerns over traffic conditions and the environment, combined with the sedentary lifestyles peculiar to the software sector, have all combined to promote cycling to work in Bangalore.
Indian society equates prosperity with bigger vehicles and cycling with the poor. Cyclists are offered no facilities whatsoever in the shape of cycle lanes or bike parks.
But it is no longer unusual to see sweaty techies pedalling to work, laptops in backpacks or carriers, and heading straight for the shower and a change of clothes once they reach the office.
“It’s been about six months since I have been biking seriously,” says Pramod Kumar, 27, a systems architect at Varista Technologies, who has inspired five of his colleagues to take to biking as well.
“My work day is hectic and I have no time to go jogging as I used to. So the 1/2km bike ride to and from the office works both as exercise and as commute.”
Software developer A Lakshman also took to commuting to work on his Trek 3700 bicycle in an attempt to lose some of the 91kg on his 5’10” frame.
“Because of my 9am-9.30pm timings at work, I thought this would be the best exercise for me, since work is 15.5km away from home,” says the 23-year-old.
“The morning rides, especially, were very pleasant. Unfortunately, since I am prone to wheezing, I found the evening pollution levels too high to continue biking.”
For long-time Bangaloreans, who have seen the city morph from a pensioner’s paradise to a model of urban chaos, these changes are drastic enough to force action.
Five years ago, Mr Dasarathi went back to cycling at the urging of a friend campaigning for better air quality and encouraged colleagues to follow suit.
Today, he leads Go Cycle, an umbrella organisation of biking enthusiasts and activists, which is looking to lobby corporate sponsors and the local government for amenities for urban cyclists.
“Initially, I used to bike from home to the local gym or run errands. After a few months, I began taking the bike to work, maybe a couple of days a week. Then, I began to dread those days when carry-home files or client meetings forced me to use the car,” Mr Dasarathi says.
“Now it’s an addiction. I use my Ford Fusion car perhaps once in 10 days. I prefer to cycle the 15km distance between home and office twice a day.”
His experience has convinced him that bicycles and a cohesive Mass Rapid Transport System – construction has just begun on an underground railway system in the city and is expected to take up to four years – may be the beleaguered city’s last hope.
In a recent issue of the Janaagraha Times citizens’ newsletter, he says: “Bangalore has hordes of people who cycle because of economic reasons, but these people are never considered when planning roads, flyovers and underpasses.
“Cycling is the most eco-friendly mode of transport in the world but we in India are still stuck in the developing country syndrome. Instead of encouraging them, we actively discourage them.”
To that end, Go Cycle is working to convince businesses in Jayanagar, a locality with broad, tree-lined roads, and the Central Business District – including the arterial MG Road and Commercial Street – to turn over unused space for the use of cycle parking.
Prem Koshy, owner of a landmark city-centre restaurant named after his family, has already agreed.
The group also hopes to bring pressure on city planners to start building cycle lanes and separate traffic signals in new parts of the city, as well as to co-ordinate cycle-use with the metro.
It’s uphill work – but then, so is cycling in an undulating city like Bangalore.