Vijay Kundaji didn’t really figure in my list of friends, though we met at regular intervals during Citizens for Bengaluru meetings. He seemed reticent and a man of few words who liked a comfortable corner—very unlike me.
But when we began work on the Beku Beda Santhe, I realised his shy nature was a sham. He turned into a one-man army, whose stoic confidence was what kept most of us calm during the run up to the event. Murphy’s Law would not meet a more determined adversary. Our shared moments over absolute disasters and accomplishment also saw us become friends.
And just a week later, he is badly injured in a road accident, and in a semi-conscious state, in a hospital.
On Sunday morning Vijay was out on his bicycle near his residence at HSR Layout, when he was hit by a two-wheeler. The impact was so harsh, he is to said have crashed against a concrete pillar that holds up the flyover. His head trauma was so severe, the doctors first thought it futile to even operate upon him. For those of us waiting outside the operation theater, the irony of the situation made it even more unpalatable.
An engineer-cum-consultant, who gave up a lucrative career outside of India, Vijay was a vociferous supporter of public transport and non-motorised mobility in cities. He had written extensively on the subject. He was someone who believed in practising what he preached – he always used buses to commute; cycle was the next preferred mode for him.
Is non-motorised transport a compromise on safety?
Those working on Urban Mobility in Bengaluru argue that the only way to reduce traffic congestion in the city is to de-incentivise the use of private motor vehicles and encourage integrated public transport and non-motorised mobility or cycling.
But as Vijay’s case clearly elucidates, what about safety? The inverted pyramid of mobility in Bengaluru has meant that pedestrians and non-motorised vehicle users figure last in the scheme of things. Most infrastructure projects prioritise motor vehicle movement which explains road-widening ventures that eat into footpaths.
Bengaluru currently has a little more than 60 lakhs vehicles on its roads. The number of non-motorised vehicles which included even bullock carts and horse driven carts along with bicycles is a guess at best. The number has varied between 8% to 23% according to media reports.
In bid to encourage cycling, Bengaluru got its first cycling lane around Jayanagar in 2012. Stretching over 40 kilometres, built at an estimated cost of Rs 2.5 crore, it was the brainchild of Department of Urban Land Transport (DULT). The lane became a de facto parking space for cars over time. The next area ear marked for bicycle lane was Madivala in 2013 at an estimated cost of Rs 3.6 crores. The next project for cycle lane was announced as recently as May – a 27.3 km stretch around HSR layout, where Vijay met with his accident.
The current TenderSURE stretch on Residency Road too houses a cycling track which is physically separated from the road on the footpath which is argued to be safer for cyclists.
DULT is also working on Public Bicycle Sharing project at select metro stations in Bengaluru with more than 5000 cycles on the streets.
Lessons to be learnt
But besides infrastructure, the roads continue to remain unsafe for cyclists, also because of the psyche of the drivers themselves. The Cycle Day initiative started by Praja-RAAG / DULT and co-opted by various communities around the city was successful in catching the imagination of the public on open and free streets that are non-motorised transport-friendly. But the programme did not aim to integrate cyclists and motorists similar to a real life situation, but rather segregate them for a safe space which wouldn’t be the reality of those wanting to use cycles regularly. However the plan to create empathy for cyclists worked, because many of those who participated in the event were car users on regular days.
But the question still remains – be responsible moving around the city with a constant risk to life and limb, or use private transport irresponsibility to choke up the city? It isn’t easy to pick a side.
In a city, where eight people on two wheelers lost their lives in a month to pot holes, cyclists face the dual risk of hostile motorists driving along aside them and a decaying infrastructure.
It is not difficult to guess who’d be worse for wear when a one tonne motor vehicle, with usually an over-stressed individual behind the wheel collides with a cyclist. Though the Bengaluru Traffic Police list the number of accidents in Bengaluru (as of September 2017, 499 people have been killed on the road in 469 accidents), they do not segregate it according to the type of vehicle involved, so there is no corroborated official numbers on how many cyclists were among the fatalities and injuries.
Clearly there are many lessons to be learnt about road sense. In his tragedy, Vijay would want us to learn from it. I can confidently say that about my new friend.
Full disclosure: Vijay Kundaji is a supporter of Citizen Matters, and a contributor. He has written articles on the issues concerning his neighbourhood and the city.