In traffic-choked Islamabad, residents pedal a new way of traveling

by Saleem Shaikh | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 6 October 2016 08:54 GMT

Participants of a cycle rally organised by the EU Mission to Pakistan, pedal their cycles through downtown Islamabad. TRF/Saleem Shaikh

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Could taking to bicycles help Pakistan fight congestion, pollution and climate change?

Jabeen Fatema, a student at the National University of Science and Technology, hops on a bicycle outside the Islamic Arts Council building and sets off on the tree-lined Constitutional Avenue road that passes the country’s Parliament, Supreme Court and Prime Minister’s office – one of thousands of people trying out cycling on the capital’s roads for a day.

“I came to join the event of the European Union Mission in Pakistan because I thought it could be fun to join with thousands of participants. And it was, really!” she said, settling her scarf back on her shoulders as she pedaled off, smiling.

Normally Fatema travels the four kilometers a day back and forth from the university in the family car – a ride that costs her family nearly $80 a month in fuel. But cycling could be a better option, she said.

“I think cycling for girl students like me can be a mode of good, safe, cost-effective and reliable transport that has no carbon footprint and can rid us of our dependence on our family vehicles or public transport,” she said later as she finished her four-kilometre trial ride, to cheers from fellow participants.

Promoting cycling as a healthy and eco-friendly mode of transport could be a way to reduce growing carbon emissions in Pakistan, make people healthier, cut worsening traffic congestion in the capital and improve air quality, backers say.

The European Union Mission in Pakistan aimed to make that point recently by inviting Islamabad’s residents to try cycling for a day.

Thousands of students, government workers, diplomats of various countries and other residents pedaled through city thoroughfares – many commuting on a bike for the first time.

Nawaz Khan, an arts student at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, said cycling, besides being quiet and non-polluting, was just plain fun.

“The climate could benefit in a big way if urban commuters across the country left their cars at home and cycled to work, schools and shopping areas,” she said.

According to the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, Islamabad has around 200,000 cars and over half a million motorbikes operating on its streets – and that number is growing fast.

Across Pakistan, more than a million additional cars and nearly 3 million motorbikes are added to the country’s roads each year.

One problem is that the country’s public transport system is in poor shape, with many cities lacking much at all in the way of public transport. That means more people are turning to cars and motorbikes – and those are worsening both air pollution and traffic congestion.

That means getting anywhere takes longer than it used to. But bicycling could be an answer, at least for short trips  – particularly if safe bicycle lanes are created, universities promote cycling by students and more events take place to let people try out cycling, participants in the one-day trial ride said.

“Educational institutions could introduce rent-a-bike (schemes),” suggested Nauman Ali, a journalist student at the University of Gujarat.

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