Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pedal Power: a Photo Essay

I got the idea for this photo essay while I was out snapping pictures to illustrate some of the ideas in Nagraj Adve's guest lecture, which we ran Tuesday. (I should warn you, dear reader, I am not a photographer or an artist of any kind. So a photo essay by me is really just some pictures which are bound to be full of the artistic equivalent of spelling errors and bad handwriting. But Diwali is rapidly approaching, and I somehow thought this would be easier than an old fashioned word essay.) As you may recall, Adve argues that India's low per capita carbon emissions mask an ugly reality: extremely poor people do not emit much carbon, "no matter how hard they might try." (Rest assured, our super-rich are doing their level best to compensate by consuming at or above western levels.)

Delhi presents many opportunities for photos that make Adve's point: men pedaling cycle rickshaws in the same frame as luxury vehicles; families sleeping on the footpaths outside high-end malls, etc.

For this essay, I decided to focus on human-powered cycle machines; in other words, cycles, cycle rickshaws, anything that runs when people turn pedals. Cycles are one of the most efficient machines around, and they are used all over the world, in rich countries and poor: cycle commuters, cycle messengers, police on cycles. In India, if we look, we will see human-powered cycle machines everywhere doing all sorts of things.

Unfortunately, in Delhi, few groups of people get less respect than cyclists. That is probably because in the minds of many who drive in this city, pedals=poverty. Ride a cycle on a main road, in rush hour traffic, anywhere in the city, and you will immediately understand this fact. Of course it goes without saying that operators of human-powered cycle machines are poorly paid. Given this reality, these photos can and should be read as an indictment of a system that is not working as it should work.

But what of the work itself? The more I looked, the more I began to see how wonderful these machines are; how extraordinary their operators are. The fact that we move so many people and goods with cycle technology is one of the reasons we have such low emissions--in spite of our mega-malls and super-sized vehicles. So these photos can also be read as a celebration of these green machines and the workers who operate them.

Of course it would be wrong to idealize this work: it is often brutal; and why should the excess of the rich be compensated by the sweat of the poor? Certainly, much of this work should be mechanized. To that end,
efforts to build motor-assisted, solar-powered rickshaws make a good deal of sense, though many of these efforts are still at the symbolic stage.

In the meantime, to ignore the contribution made by these people and the machines they ride to our economy and environment is likewise wrong. As I worked with these photos, I had to wonder: in a just, sustainable world, what role would human-powered machines play? What would need to happen to make cycles and cycle machines safe for workers, commuters, and those who just want a healthy way to relax?
These are some of the questions I've been thinking of. You may have answers--or more questions.

As I put this post together, I found myself humming the refrain from this song. Why not take a minute to listen to it--or try Green Day's version, which is part of the campaign against violence in Darfur. (If you want a tamer song to hum, you can try this, but I wouldn't recommend it.) Whatever you do, have a wonderful, safe Diwali-- and go easy on the atom bombs!

PS. I just found out that October 15 is Blog Action Day. I'm supposed to write a post about climate change today. I think this post counts. If you want to take part in blog action day, you can go here.


  1. Very interesting post...fascinating to see the variety of uses. The problem with using a cycle for transportation on our crowded streets is that one is scared of being mowed down by the friendly BMTC (Bangalore) bus driver. We need safer driving and better road regulations for more people to be adopt cycles. My hisband has talked about it a few times but the thought of him trundling along next to one of those huge, reckless vehicles is just not something I'm okay with. And no amount of environmental consciousness will make me okay with not being sure that he would be safe.

  2. I think safe roads are a must. In Delhi they put in a Bus Rapid Transit system that has a lot of good and bad things about it. But they included a cycle lane, which was wonderful. Still, during times of heavy traffic, that lane has been taken over by autos, two wheelers, even cars. (I confess I got into a few rather heated... "discussions" with drivers who were driving on the cycle/footpath and were threatening to drive over pedestrians and cycle wallahs--but it was not good for my blood pressure, and I don't know if I achieved much.) Delhi does so much to discourage cycling. I know I already said this, but I think it is because too many people see cycles as a sign of poverty and give cycle riders no respect. My big old Atlas stays under a tarp more than it should because riding it is not safe for long distances. I think something needs to change. We should not have to be desperate, heroic or foolish to ride our cycles to work. However, I'm looking for other perspectives on this. Nice to see you here.

  3. Bicycles are indeed probably the most sustainable mode of transportation. And as we thought earlier, they're even more apt in local communities. Unfortunately, bicycle riders in India don't get the respect they deserve , while in some places abroad, the cycles have a greater right to the road than cars!

    However, having lived temporarily in the US, I can tell you that bikes are not practical in 95% of America. Both because of the weather which gets horribly cold in winters and the fact that distances are huge. Cars are the norm in the suburbs here (not the cities) and they're going to stay that way because due to the low density, public transportation is unfeasible as well - god knows what will happen when they run out of oil...

    The same is unlikely to happen in India. In the US, the suburbs were planned and were therefore not built according to the way humans really live but according to what they thought was a great idea at the time. Now they've invested trillions of dollars into the suburbs and there's no going back for them ever. Luckily our planners in India are too incompetent to plan and execute on such a large scale - and so they'll never make the same mistakes on such a large scale.

    The few cities in India that are the result of planning instead of organic growth like Gurgaon, Noida etc are nightmares for cyclists (so I've heard) . This is because no one thinks of local communities while planning. But anyway, bottom line is that the cycle will always remain part of India for ever. Thank god for small mercies!

  4. @Bhagwad Interesting. I recently read or heard something by someone who argues that petrol prices will go up drastically in the coming years--and that this won't all be bad. One thing he says is that it will force new kinds of communities to develop which make cycles more viable. Maybe the American suburb will change or die off. Maybe in Delhi we will build real cycle lanes. If the cost of petrol were to triple, there would be fewer cars on the road, which would leave more room for cycles. My concern would be what all this does to the agricultural and transport sectors; already inflation is such a problem.

  5. Nice post, Hari! :)

    You said: My big old Atlas stays under a tarp more than it should because riding it is not safe for long distances. I think something needs to change. We should not have to be desperate, heroic or foolish to ride our cycles to work. However, I'm looking for other perspectives on this. Nice to see you here.

    I think, it would make more sense to start acting on it than wait until we get separate lanes for cyclists or good roads or careful/sensible/safe driving from other vehicle wallahs or whatever that stops anyone from starting to cycle around! Isn't it? And it's never desperate, heroic or foolish (as you said) to cycle to work. I do cycle to work and you can start, too! A little conscious cycling on the road-side would be great. Keeping all the bad things about Hyderabad's roads in mind, this is what I do. Let the big old Atlas be where it belongs! Its a bit tiring in long distances, but never unsafe, I believe.

    Btw, I've written about my cycling experience in Hyderabad on my blog (

  6. Ashish,

    Hey, I'll come visit your blog soon. And I think you make a good point. Change takes time, but it will never happen unless people hit the streets, as it were. So now that the rains that never really came are over, I'll get out the oil can see what I can do. It's great to to see you here.

  7. Interesting post Hari! I don't think cyclists get much respect anywhere, it's a shame.

  8. Hi, Friends as Air pollution is the introduction of chemicals, particulate matter, or biological materials that cause harm or discomfort to humans or other living organisms, or damages the natural environment into the atmosphere.
    The atmosphere is a complex dynamic natural gaseous system that is essential to support life on planet Earth. Stratospheric ozone depletion due to air pollution has long been recognized as a threat to human health as well as to the Earth's ecosystems.
    Indoor air pollution and urban air quality are listed as two of the world's worst pollution problems by 2030, Can anybody say how safe is our Air to breath, Lets take a U turn to SAVE our EARTH Lets burn our Fats By Bicycles and scatting... Get back with some realistic thoughts. Satish


What do you think?