Bicycle Culture: Conversations, Quotations, and Conflict

February 13th, 2013

Country/Day:      India/8

Bikes Fixed:                  9

Bikes/Day Avg:              1.3

Note: I have attempted to publish this post multiple times with many errors and failures. Not sure what the deal is but due to this fact it may appear as a previous version (one with fewer pictures, edits, etc.). Apologies in advance.

Last post I tried to highlight only facts and observations about bicycle culture here, with a focus on the shop where I was working and how it fits into 90:90.


I observe this man putting air in his tire.

I want to use this post to highlight the conversations I’ve been having about bicycle culture. They have been plentiful, and the reason why is interesting in and of itself. As said by a new freind of mine, Ajay J.:

In India, most bicycle mechanics are uneducated. If any given mechanic had a law degree he would probably go be a lawyer. So when a guy with your education comes to our country and wants to be a bike mechanic, we’re naturally curious. I’d want to talk to you just the same if you were here working as a carpenter.

So I thought that was interesting, and definitely a fair point. The good thing about people wanting to talk to me is that I’m able to get a lot of opinions on the topic of bicycles. After all, that’s why I’m here, so it’s usually the opener.


These spokes would have a SUPER STRONG opinion… if they could talk.

– – –

It is worth noting, before I continue, that most of these people are fairly well educated, if not in the top tier (say, the top 10%) of the population with respect to education. This happens because there is a correlation between level of education and level of English spoken. I’d like to get opinions across the board, which is happening slowly, but I really need to work on my Hindi first.

– – –

Anyways, I was talking to Rajan B. at the repair seminar I hosted last weekend, and he had a fairly straightforward opinion on the matter. In short, bicycles are looked down upon, no matter how illogical, or who it is in the saddle:

If you were to bike to a hotel in India, it’s likely they wouldn’t let you bring your bike to your room with you. It doesn’t make any sense at all — bicycles are the cleanest method of transportation available. But all they care about is that the vast majority of the riders here in India don’t have much income. People who drive cars, on the other hand, are in a much better place.

I bet they’d let you bring a car to your room with you if it would fit in the elevator.

He makes a point which I have slowly begun to notice. Despite bicycles being everywhere, there is an incredibly disproportionate amount of accommodations for these bicycles. I have seen only one “safe” place to park bicycles — at the underground parking lot in the mall — but elsewhere bicycles are usually left out, exposed to theft and to the elements. There are no bike locks anywhere.

One solution to this is to put the lock on the bike. India has mastered this perfectly:


This guy attaches to the chainstay just under the seat, and keeps the rear wheel from rotating when closed.

Of course, the bicycle can still be walked away with, and any bicycles that doesn’t get stolen gets moved, because there is so little space in the streets (be sure to watch the video of my morning commute when I post it).

So that means most bicycles can’t be brought into work. Can they be kept at home? From Prabhat A., my host:

Most houses consist of single room about the size of your bedroom. […] A family of four or five might share this entire space.

So that answers that question. But if people don’t often have a place to put them, what do they use them for?

First off, despite not having much space, it can be worth it to keep a bicycle at home. As you know if you’ve read the rest of this site, in India, owning a bicycle increases the average family’s income by 37.5%. For starters, that can mean a bigger space to house the bicycle. Owning a bicycle can also mean the ability to work far away. When I went for a ride with the local cycling group, I saw a lot of people biking home — just after 6:30 AM. I asked Prabhat about this, and he said,

Up the street from where you saw them are many outsourced calling centers. Those people live [in the slums], sleeping during the day, and going to work at night. When you saw them is was 6:30, right? So that’s 6 PM on the west coast of the United States.

Mind. Blown.


Now I can tell all my friends I made this face at 3:00 AM CST.

Aside from getting to work, for many people, bicycles are their work: They use them to transport things. If it can be carried, the people here have found a way to carry it on a bike. There’s always the infamous bicycle rickshaw, used to transport people. Between other three-wheelers and the traditional tw0-wheeler I’ve seen thus far: PVC pipe, coconuts, bricks, chips, fruit, ice cream, wood, couches, mattresses, I’m sure many other things, and my personal favorite — chickens. That’s right, the meat you buy here is fresh — transported by bicycle that day, and you get to choose the chicken. *ahem* Anyways. Oh, here’s another one I forgot, described to my by Prabhat A while in the car:
Did you just see that three-wheeler? He had a tarp [container] full of garbage four feet in diameter and as all as you. He spends all day filling it with trash and then bikes it to the landfill to sell. He’ll make maybe $1-200 a month.
So yea, by working with bikes, I’m pretty certain to work with my target income bracket.
If you’ve been keeping up, you know that most of the cycles we service as Fauji are people on their way to or from work, or people stopping by during work (usually cycle rickshaws).
The majority of the customers you see at Fauji are the lowest of the low.
Well, perhaps. In my last post I mentioned there were single-car garage type shops that I’d like to venture towards working with. At the moment, I can’t, since I don’t have any connection, and I don’t speak any Hindi. But it’s on my to-do list.
So we know that most bicycle users in India are in a lower income bracket, that they rely on their bicycle to make or seriously augment a living, and that they (sadly) are looked down upon. From Rajan B. again:
It is a sad but true fact that most cyclists are looked down upon. It doesn’t make sense, either, since riding a bicycle is clearly a realistic way of making a living.
I mean, I’d be okay with that. Obviously that’s not the case.
The instant a guy who rides a bicycle can afford a motorcycle, he’s going to buy one. And the instant a guy who owns a motorcycle can afford a car, he’s going to buy a car. But the vast majority of the population relies on bicycles to make a living. So bicycles aren’t modern, but they are realistic.
And then, my favorite bit:
But hey, maybe what’s realistic should be what’s modern.
Go Rajan.
Hey, it’s realistic and modern to have things shipped in trucks exactly the size needed.
– – –
So the point of this project is not to make a change to the lifestyles of the people here, it’s to promote an already existent lifestyle that is clearly working. Bicycles are clearly working. They are realistic. But if I could — on the side– help make them modern… wouldn’t that be pretty cool, too?
I decided to explore this a bit. Let’s start with some history. From Robert Hurst’s The Cyclist’s Manifesto:
In 1880, during the high-wheeler era, [Colonel Albert Pope] created the League of American Wheelmen. Although his first thought was probably for marketing his Columbia-brand bicycles, the League grew into a multi-pronged organization with impressive reach into wide-ranging aspects of bicycling. […] Most notably, the LAW succeeded in a widespread movement to have public roads paved and improved, primarily to benefit recreational bicyclists (and the bicycle industry).
In case you missed that bold part (let me say it again: “primarily to benefit recreational bicyclists”) Hurst spells it out for you:
[…] The League was not an order of utility cyclists, mind you, trying to improve their routes to work. These were primarily weekend warriors, coming at the politicians in such numbers and with such combativeness that the politicians couldn’t resist. Their Good Roads Movement altered the landscape noticeably, changed the country’s expectations about street surfaces […]
So just in case that wasn’t obvious what it said was “Rich people are the only ones able to affect bicycle policy.”
Okay, that’s not quite what it said, but you get the point. In the States anyways, part of the reason high-quality roads first came into existence was because of weekend riders. NOT people who used the bicycle to make a living (people making a living from riding around with an ice cream cooler, for instance).
Maybe an exaggeration but you get my point.
And thanks to Wikipedia, we know that investing in roads actually works:
Road investments in India were a staggering 3-10 times more effective than almost all other investments and subsidies in rural economy in the decade of 1990s. What a road does at a macro level to increase transport, the bicycle supports at the micro level.
But let’s not believe the internet! Let’s ask someone in India. Someone important. Someone who knows a lot about bikes… let’s ask the managing director for Firefox Bikes, Shiv Singh.
The people who will change bicycle policy are the ones who make a conscious decision to bike to work, or to spend their leisure time on the bicycle.
That sounds like an agreement! Just to double-check though, I spoke with my host. He essentially said “Money changes policies:”
It wouldn’t matter if you had the signature of 1,000 cyclists in the lower income brackets. They don’t have any money to give back to the government. The reason there’s infrastructure for cars is because cars offer a return — the cost of the car, the cost of maintenance, of gas, and of parking. Until cycling becomes a regular activity for those with some spare cash, I think we’re unlikely to see a change in policy.
If you know me at all you know that I’m in a perpetual fight with red tape.
So, as far as policy goes, and the viewpoint surrounding bicycles, it sounds like there’s no right answer. It would be pretty cool to be part of a policy change, but something tells me it’s not as simple as fixing bikes for the haves (instead of the have-nots). So, maybe I’ll work with Firefox for a bit, but for now I plan to maintain my focus on volunteering my time at Fauji Cycles.

7 thoughts on “Bicycle Culture: Conversations, Quotations, and Conflict

  1. Jenna says:

    I was so excited to get the to coffee shop this morning to study and there was a new blog post for me to read instead! (I check your blog so often that I just have to type “9” into my browser to get it to pop up). I am loving the exploration and insight with which you write.

    Did anyone email to tell you that your radio story finally aired?!


    • Kyle says:

      Hello Didi,

      (“didi” is a term used here to address a female who is older than the speaker!) I am glad you’re enjoying my entries. Thanks for commenting! It makes it more worthwhile to know that people are reading them. I’m glad I could help you procrastinate your studying. : o)

      Yes, Mom e-mailed me about it, but apparently nobody caught it. Ah, well. Next time.


  2. Marilyn says:

    This is a fascinating blog entry. When you consider that Inda just gained its independence in 1947, it would make sense that, given the population, there political system also lags behind the US. It’s interesting that while the US is realizing (hopefully) that bikes are forward thinking, it also seems that there was a time when the US didn’t. It would be amazing if you could open their eyes a bit, especially because of the masses of the population that depend on bikes.

  3. Priyesh Kurup says:

    Strong work Kyle..! Love reading your updates. Glad to see you are having a great time doing what you set out to do.

    You highlight a very important point. The bicycle plays a pivotal role in delineating the Indian social class structure. It’s almost like saying that the quintessential Indian cyclist by default is a poor man who cannot afford to buy an automobile . It divides the class structure into people who depend on the cycle for livelihood and use them as essential modes of transportation, from the affluent who could use the higher end bicycles for recreational purposes.

    It’s frustrating that in a country plagued by pollution and roads choked by automobiles, the importance of the bicycle as a green technology is still not widely accepted.

    All that aside, One of the most important days of my childhood was when I learned to ride a bicycle. I still remember, with great clarity, the street by my home and the time of the day when, after innumerable attempts, I finally experienced that exhilarating feeling of balancing myself on my bicycle without getting toppled over.

    Have fun Kyle..and continue to keep us enlightened..!!


  4. Shakun Sood says:

    Hey Kyle,

    Just wanted to say that I enjoyed the enlightening session at Firefox today and wish you best of luck for this wonderful project. I just hope that everyone understands the importance of this simple yet powerful machine ever built by Man.


  5. Zach says:

    Kyle – Love the update!

    I remember seeing all the bikes while I was in India but hadn’t heard or even thought much about the cultural and socioeconomic aspects. Very interesting!

    I am especially fascinated by how bicycling is influenced so much by politics. It makes sense but is frustrating, indeed.

    As I recall, the Indian people are so inquisitive and I can tell you that without a doubt you are going to leave a great and lasting impression on each an everyone you meet.

    This is such a great experience and I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to travel vicariously through you, so post a lot more!

    God speed!


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