Indian cyclists' vent anger as Kolkata bans bikes on key roads
Indian rickshaw riders and cyclists sit with placards during a protest in Kolkata, on October 2, 2013
Under strong sunshine, crowds gathered in the Esplanade area of the former colonial capital, chanting "We want cycles back!" and holding placards which read "Turn off your engine. Kids breathe here!"
"Banning cycles in a city like Kolkata does not make any sense. It's a crazy decision," said Gautam Shroff, a spokesman for local cycling group Ride 2 Breathe.
"We wonder, when many countries are encouraging cycling in a bid to ease growing pollution, why authorities put a ban on cycling here?" he said.
He put the number of participants at 4,000 -- "95 percent of them commoners whose livelihoods are affected" -- but the crowd appeared smaller.
Local police barred cyclists as well as the city's famous hand-pulled rickshaws from 174 roads and streets in August to try to reduce the legendary traffic jams in the eastern city of 14 million.
Shroff said this amounted to "virtually the entire city" because it was impossible to navigate using only small streets and lanes.
Officers recently started seizing bikes and fining defiant riders, who are mostly working-class people who run a daily gauntlet among thousands of aggressively driven cars and trucks.
"Police are harassing cycle riders. My cycle was seized a week ago when I was riding to supply milk," said Yogesh Yadav, a milkman who works in the centre of the city.
"We will fight against the decision," he added.
Traffic speeds locally are down to 8-11 miles per hour (14-18 kilometres per hour) compared to the average in Indian cities of 13 mph, state transport minister Madan Mitra explained to AFP.
"Kolkata has less cars than other metropolitan cities in the country, but most of its roads and streets are narrow," he explained.
"It's a decision to ease the traffic bottlenecks and increase the speed of vehicles," Mitra said, adding: "It's not a blanket ban. One can ride cycles in the lanes and bylanes of the city."
Shroff said the ban on cyclists and other non-motorised transport applied to 32 streets 24 hours a day, and in the remaining 142 from 7am to 11 pm. "It's as good as a blanket ban," he said.
Indian cities have grown progressively more congested and polluted as car ownership increases in step with growing wealth.
City authorities have been slow to invest in improving public transport networks. New city roads rarely include dedicated lanes for cycling, which is one of the main forms of transport for the poor.
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