Changing a behaviour takes time. But that's the task Jharkhand's capital Ranchi has undertaken in order to encourage people to use cycles. In one of India's most ambitious plans, Ranchi kick-started the 'har shanviar, no car' (every Saturday, no car) campaign this month in an attempt to reduce air pollution.
"We are a small city and studies have shown that most residents live within a five km radius of their workplace, school or markets," said Shankar Yadav, a deputy commissioner with the Ranchi Municipal Corporation.
"Though there is no law to implement this idea, we are hoping that people will embrace it because it is very doable here. Barring the elderly, our analysis shows that most people can easily switch to a bicycle or walk," he added. Yadav takes out his cycle every Saturday to travel.
Ranchi is among many Indian cities trying new ways to tackle the worsening air quality - be it with pop-up cycle tracks, free cycle repair clinics or pedestrian-only streets. With an urban population of 1.5 million, Ranchi has ambient air pollution levels that are seven times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) recommended standards, according to studies.
The city has also been identified by the National Clean Air Programme as one of 122 "non-attainment cities" that consistently fall short of national standards.
Akanksha, a first-time rider in Ranchi, said she enjoyed the ride and was "quite excited" by the eco-rationale, too. "I did have to deal with the city traffic and the pollution, but am hoping as the idea catches on, these problems will get addressed," said the music teacher, who goes by just one name. While she realises that cycling with a guitar might be difficult, she wants to set an example for my students.
Authorities are starting to realising that the cost of inaction is steep. Bad air was linked to 1.24 million deaths, or one in eight of those who died, in India's latest nationwide pollution study.
"It is a welcome move and heartening to know that smaller cities are starting these initiatives," said Sarika Panda, who set up the country's first lasting car-free initiative in 2013. "This is a good time to push for this switch as people are more aware and understand the need to reduce their carbon footprint," she says.
Ahead of launch, Ranchi built 50 bike stands where residents can rent wheels by the hour. Cycle tracks are due to follow. While the city is compact, urban planners welcome even these small and "symbolic gesture" as they foster awareness and force authorities to improve facilities for walkers and cyclists.
Citing Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, home to one of India's oldest pedestrian-only streets, researchers say both momentum and longevity are key to clean air in the long term.
"Any intervention that cuts air pollution is good but if there are many exceptions to the rule then there will be no benefits," said Sarath Guttikunda, director of UrbanEmissions.Info, an independent research body. "If we really have no cars running on the roads for 24 hours, it will make a difference. Otherwise, in small events like a no vehicle street for a day, it is difficult to measure change. They are just good awareness exercises."
Yadav agreed it is too soon to talk about success but the early signs are promising and the goal is ambitious. While precise data on the new scheme was not yet available, interest in cycling is rising.
In 2019, there were more than 9,000 people who had registered on the bike sharing app started by the civic body. Post covid-19, many more have invested in bicycles, Yadav said. "It is early days but government officials, politicians and prominent citizens are setting the example," he said.
Besides pollution, the municipal corporation is also linking this intiative to a healthy lifestyle and the Indian government's Cycle4Change challenge. "A lot will depend on the enthusiasm of the city's residents," Yadav added.