Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (center, in red shirt) talks with Indian cyclists. Photo by Mayank via Ride-A-Cycle Foundation.
The perception that cycling is a slow way of commuting is "bogus" and the idea that increased car ownership is a sign of progress is "silly," says Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a committed, car-free cyclist. Originally from India, Dr. Venki, as he is known, recently gave an outspoken interview about his cycling habit to an organization that works to promote bike-riding in Bangalore.In India, as in many countries, "you are respected only if you own a car; cycling is perceived [as being] only for poor and neglected communities," said Murali HR from the Ride-A-Cycle Foundation, who interviewed Dr. Venki in Bangalore in early January. He said many of his friends were "shocked" to learn that the Nobel laureate's only vehicle has just two wheels.
Cycling is a 'Great Lifestyle'
"I don't own a car for a variety of reasons. I enjoy cycling and it is environmentally a much nicer mode of transport, [as] it does not pollute," Dr. Venki told Murali. "I get to exercise every day, regardless of whether I take time out to exercise or not... You get up in the morning and you go on a bicycle; [when you get] to work, you are awake and not stressed out. At the end of the day, by the time you go home, you are fully relaxed. It is a great lifestyle."
The professor reminisced about his childhood in Baroda, India, where "you could bicycle... from anywhere to anywhere." Today, he said, "there is not a single bicycle. Everybody has a motorcycle -- that is the minimum. This excess traffic is destroying Indian cities."
But, Murali asked, didn't people only bike in the past because they had no other options available?
Car Ownership is 'Like Smoking and Consuming Alcohol'
"No! That's not true. We had so many alternatives. You could take the bus -- the bus was cheap. There were also plenty of auto-rickshaws," Dr. Venki said. "[Having a car has become] a bit like smoking and consuming alcohol -- a sign of growing up and becoming an adult... If all the adult role models are driving motorcycles and cars, [children will] say, 'When I grow up, I want to drive a car.' So it is the fault of adults! ... Adults in Europe cycle a lot. If children grow up seeing adults cycling, they do not think, 'Cycling is only for kids.' They think cycling is a way of life."
Adult cyclists are becoming few and far between in India, Dr. Venki says. Photo by Dipanker Dutta via Flickr.
The Nobel Prize winner, who currently works in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, in the U.K., was equally vociferous in countering other myths about cycling, as the interview that the Ride-A-Cycle Foundation shared with TreeHugger revealed.
- On the idea that it takes too much time: "I think it is all bogus. The same people who say that spend a lot of time in other activities... In Cambridge, which also has a big traffic problem, I have often agreed to meet people for dinner at a restaurant. And usually I am there before the people in the car.... For anything up to 5 kilometers, it will hardly take any more time to cycle."
- On the cost of improving facilities for cyclists: "All of these things cost very little. The amount of pavement and the amount of land you need for cycling is nothing compared to an underpass or flyover [for cars]."
- On the challenges of going shopping while cycling: "There is a big advantage to that. If you go in a car to the supermarket, you will buy all sorts of junk because you know you can just dump it in the car. If you go on a cycle, you will only buy what you really need."
- On the difficulty of cycling in the tropics: "That is not true! When I was growing up in Baroda, summer temperatures would be 45 degrees [Celsius]! And we all would cycle."
"India was a big cycling country.... But now everybody wants a car, I think it is a silly way of progress," he said. "The whole world is running out of gasoline. There is global warming and all sorts of reasons that you need to be concerned about. Apart from that, people are stressed out; you always have to be alert [when driving]... Cycling is enjoyable and it is fun. But unfortunately, it cannot co-exist with so much traffic."
Promoting Cycling Tourism in India
Despite the chaos often associated with India, Dr. Venki believes it has the potential for the same kind of cycling tourism he and his wife recently enjoyed in the English countryside:
Indian cities are impossible to navigate; even if you land at the airport outside somewhere, you have to go through all sorts of traffic. So a nice thing would be if there were bike lanes from major airports. That would also help airport workers. They could go out more quietly onto designated bike roads. The government of India can identify certain roads that do not cater to heavy traffic and designate them as scenic routes. They can provide some small facilities for cyclists. Simple things like water and some extra pavement make a huge difference.
A member of the Cambridge Cycling Club, which represents cyclists' interests at local planning sessions and council meetings, Dr. Venki also believes strongly in the need for political lobbying. "The people who are wealthy and have the political power don't want to cycle; they think that cycling is some poor person's occupation," he said. "That mindset can be only be changed if young people who go on to become professionals and become well-off maintain the tradition of cycling and put pressure on the political people."
The change in mindset must extend to parents as well, he added. "There is a vicious cycle where the parents feel worried about their children and drive them [everywhere]. They forget completely about bicycles" and fail to advocate for better safety provisions," he said. "This cycle has to be broken. If parents are interested, they will put pressure [on the government] and give [their children] more freedom."
More about bicycling:
Are You a Savvy Cyclist? : Quiz
2 Wheels, Not 4: Pedal Towards Bicycle Activism in 10 Revolutions Per Minute
NYC Survey Shows Benefits of Walking, Cycling, Active Commuting
Google Maps Adding More Green Locations, Gets More Cyclist-Friendly (Video)
The Cyclist's Manifesto
Copenhagen Cyclists Take Over Main City Thoroughfare
Why Cycling Is to Transportation What Efficiency Is to Energy
Mayor of London Announces the 'Summer of Cycling'
Cycling Saves Australia $200 million in Health Costs