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FEATURE-Kashmir bike sellers outpaced by pandemic demand for pedal power

SRINAGAR, India, Nov 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - B icycle sellers in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, have struggled to keep pace with demand as the COVID-19 pandemic has driven surging interest in pedal power to get around the city and keep fit.

Jamsheed Jeelani, who runs a bike shop in Lal Chowk, the city’s commercial hub, said his customers had been asked to pre-order and wait for three months for deliveries of some brands.

“It was because of corona (virus) - and people have also become health conscious now,” Jeelani said.

“A lot of people are also buying bicycles for travel, especially labourers and skilled workers.”

The trend echoes a shift towards cycling in other cities worldwide, as authorities try to cut traffic congestion and air pollution and residents seek healthier ways to travel.

Jeelani noted that demand had already risen in the past two to three years, but during the COVID-19 lockdown imposed from March to mid-August, there was a huge increase in customers.

“This year, the demand was too high,” he said. His monthly sales have doubled on average this year and would have been even higher if enough bicycles had been available, he added.

“Because of the lockdown in most of the world, the production suffered, and we had to settle for limited supplies,” he said.

Hubaib Rasool, a high-school student getting his bicycle fixed at a repair shop in Ganderbal district, said cycling had helped him and his friends stay active during lockdown.

One of Rasool’s classmates at Ganderbal Public School - which like other educational institutions has yet to reopen since March - had managed to lose a lot of weight after taking up cycling, he said.

Shop owner Sameer Ahmad said he had never had as much work. “It means a lot of people are now using bicycles,” he said.

Rameez Ahmad, another Srinagar bicycle seller, said the closure of the city’s gyms had pushed residents to find new ways to stay fit.

“Many turned to cycling,” he said, adding that his sales had risen by more than 150% through the end of September.

Showkat Parra, the owner of one of several new bicycle shops in Sumbal Bandipora, a town 22 km (14 miles) north of Srinagar, said he had sold more than 40 bicycles each week since June, though sales were tailing off as winter was around the corner.

“The demand was too high during corona lockdown as people had no transport, and kids were staying home – their parents thought ‘let them do exercise’,” he said.

NEW CYCLE TRACKS

In response to growing interest in cycling for transport and fitness, city authorities are developing Srinagar’s first network of cycling tracks.

They are also introducing other measures for the safety and convenience of cyclists, such as new lighting, trees for shade and bike parking areas.

The work is part of the Srinagar Master Plan 2035, which identifies cycling as an important “non-energy consuming and non-polluting mode of transport for short and medium trip lengths” in a city notorious for traffic congestion.

Rizwan Khurshid, coordinator of the Srinagar Smart City Mission, which aims to make the city “green and clean” with a full set of civic amenities and technology, welcomed the trend.

“People are getting aware about the benefits of cycling like never before thanks to the growing use of information technology,” including the internet and social media, he said.

Young people are also attracted by new bicycle models with improved grips, gears and tyres, he added.

“We are now putting cycling tracks in various parts of the city on fast-track considering the lessons learnt from COVID-19,” he said, adding that a cycle-sharing scheme was also being introduced in central Srinagar.

A 7-km cycle lane is already being laid down in Soura, 12 km northeast of the city centre, he noted.

Research carried out over 25 years in England and Wales, published in The Lancet medical journal in May, showed the health benefits of physically active commuting, particularly cycling.

Compared with those who travelled to work in private cars, the study found bicycle commuters had a 20% reduced rate of mortality, including a 24% lower rate of death from cardiovascular problems and a 16% reduced rate from cancer.

FASTER, GREENER COMMUTE

Omar Salim, a urologist at Srinagar’s Super Specialty Hospital, who has cycled regularly to and from work since June 2018, is satisfied with his decision to commute on two wheels.

“I am freed from traffic jams,” he said. “On my bicycle, my commute time from my home to the hospital is always 20-25 minutes... Getting in late has never been a worry for me since I started using a bicycle for commuting.”

He is also proud of doing his bit for the environment.

Salim used an online calculator to work out the number of trees saved by cycling and avoiding the pollution that would have been caused by driving the same distance, with his tally equivalent to planting a tree every six days, or 140 so far.

He also enjoys cycling because it makes him feel part of his surroundings, unlike travelling by car which is “disconnected” from the rest of the world, the doctor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during his lunch break.

Cycling has made him fitter and he can now go for an 8-10 km jog or play football without feeling tired, he said.

"I feel much healthier," he added. (Reporting by Athar Parvaiz; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit news.trust.org/climate)

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