As always, and even during the pandemic, Dhaka's air has been fighting to stay below 100 AQI. The city had been under lockdown for two months and yet, the air pollution then was stuck at the "moderate" level. While we are trying to slowly step out of this global pandemic, now might just be the right time to reconsider our lifestyle and heal our city.
When the lockdown ended on May 31, city dwellers got back to their usual routine and so did vehicles. Since the majority of Dhaka residents use buses as the means of transport, environmental activists like Shovan believe that it will not be possible to implement social distancing.
Syed Saiful Alam Shovan works as a media advocacy officer at Work for Better Bangladesh, a non-profit organisation promoting a greener Bangladesh.
"When the entire country was under lockdown, the quality of air in Dhaka had improved to some extent but now that the lockdown is slowly being lifted, we are going back to the same state," he said in an interview with The Business Standard.
Bicycles, meanwhile, can be the perfect mode of transport in order to maintain social distancing and a healthy physique. It can also aid in bringing down the air pollution level in Dhaka.
But even if people prefer cycling, are our streets safe for cyclists?
When asked about this, social worker and cyclist Niaz Morshed said, "Though our roads are not safe for bicycles, we cannot just sit back and wait for the government to take initiatives. As long as the majority of people do not start adapting to better means of transport, getting suitable roads for cycling will be a far-fetched idea."
Shovan, on the other hand, believes that an initiative to construct a proper infrastructure and allocate budget for bicycle and walking lanes in the city is very much needed. He said, "We have to prioritise the resources needed to heal our city. Budget and part of the roads should be allocated to construct bicycle lanes."
Many governments around the world are taking initiatives to encourage bicycle usage. The Italian government is offering 60 percent reimbursements (up to 500 Euros) upon purchasing a bicycle or a motorised two-wheeler. Milan converted 35km of its roads for the use of cyclists and pedestrians. In New York, meanwhile, 160km has been coverted for the use of both pedestrians and cyclists.
Britain's transport minister, Grant Shapps, recently announced a £2bn investment for building cycling infrastructure and better pavements. France wants to spend €20m to subsidise cycle training and more parking spaces for bikes.
Niaz has been cycling for the past 11 years and he always uses his cycle to commute within the city. On average, he cycles around 500-600km every month. Not only does cycling cut down his travel expenditures, but it also strengthens his immune system.
He said, "Usually, it takes me 45 minutes to cycle from Dhanmondi to Motijheel." Such a short distance can never be covered in such a short time on a motor vehicle. Apart from the long-haul pressure at the beginning, bicycles are the most suitable means of transport; cheap, no registration, no yearly tax, and no insurance. In turn, it improves your respiratory system.
"Cycles are running out pretty quick in stores in Europe and I believe the trend will hit Bangladesh as well. To refrain from a crowded gathering, people should start using cycles to commute within the city," he explained.
Since March, Europe and America have seen a massive hike in bicycle use; 175 percent rise in Switzerland and 151 percent in Philadelphia, according to a report published by The Economist.
But even if people consider using bicycles, can it be parked anywhere the rider goes?
Both Niaz and Shovan raised the same concern that there are not enough parking facilities for bicycles in Dhaka. Bicycles often get stolen and can be very hard to track down. To ensure safety, cycle parking racks can be installed at pit stops, public parking spots, and private and public offices. "Just like people pay for car parking, cyclists will be more than happy to pay for parking their cycles," said Niaz.
But even if security is ensured, can the common people afford bicycles?
There are local companies like Meghna Group who are manufacturing bicycles. There are some companies that are importing varieties of bicycles of different foreign brands. Local bicycle manufacturers have to pay 57-80 percent tax while importing bicycle parts.
The price varies depending on its features and the cost of import which often increases the price of the products. In this regard, Shovan said, "The government can reduce the import tax on bicycles and can offer subsidies to local manufacturers. This will lead to a fall in price and will attract more people."
Bangladesh exports a total of eight lakh units of bicycles every year and 95 percent of those bicycles are sold in the European market. We are among the top exporters of bicycle in the European market and this shows that local manufacturers of Bangladesh have the capacity to fulfill the demand for bicycles in our country if it arises.
Within a decade, bicycle export has doubled, and Bangladesh has earned over $84 million in 2018-19 fiscal year just from bicycle exports, according to Export Promotion Bureau's data. If cycles being manufactured in Bangladesh can back Europe in sustaining its environment, it can contribute to helping its own over-polluted cities as well.
But even if there is a steady supply of affordable bicycles, will our roads be safe for cyclists?
Last year, Dhaka North City Corporation initiated the first-ever bicycle lane project in the capital's Agargaon area – a 9.5km lane just for bicycles. The project is yet to be finished and that only covers 9.5km out of 1,286km of the road network in the capital.
"It might take years to make Dhaka's road safe for cyclists but if we do not start now, the time span will not get any shorter. We were not prepared for the pandemic, but we are somehow fighting it. Bicycle lanes can be constructed all over Dhaka within a budget less than the cost of just a 1km metro rail line," said Shovan.
According to a report published by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, 935,840 motor vehicles were registered from 2011 to 2019 in Dhaka. On average, around 280 motor vehicles had made their way to the capital's streets every day over the past nine years.
The numbers may have dropped due to the lockdown now but what will stop us from going back to the same state?
Among the 935,840 registered motor vehicles, 522,100 are motorcycles. With time, many city dwellers have shifted to using motorcycles as it is more convenient than public transports and cars. Social distancing can also be maintained by using motorcycles, but will that do any good for the lungs of Dhaka city?