By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
ISLAMABAD, Jan 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cyclists are taking to the streets of the Pakistani capital, after the Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation officially opened dedicated bike lanes for the first time, aiming to promote a greener environment and better public health.
Local authorities hope the 5 km (3.11 miles) of cycle track, costing around $20,000, will help reduce public reliance on fuel-guzzling vehicles that have degraded the sprawling city's air quality.
The cycle paths were conceived more than half a century ago under a master plan for the city's development when it was designated as the capital, but were never inaugurated and fell into disrepair. They have now been restored to fulfill their original purpose.
Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation chairman Anser Aziz said the aim was to motivate people to use bikes instead of cars "at least for short-distance travel to offices, schools and shopping areas".
Science student Lubna Syed, flanked by her friends riding bicycles along a lane on Constitutional Avenue opposite the parliament building, said cycling offered two major advantages: a healthy environment and a healthy body.
Syed enjoys short rides every evening with her classmates, which has encouraged her four cousins to join them, she said.
Nowadays cities are becoming environmentally degraded faster, and are home to more people suffering from pollution-related health problems like asthma, she added.
It is a "real joy" to see how Islamabad's new bicycle lanes could help tackle those problems, she said, pedalling off.
The opening of Islamabad's bike lanes in November was the first phase of a plan to install around 60 km of cycle tracks by mid-2018, which is now awaiting national government approval, Aziz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Separated from the roads by wide strips of grass to keep vehicles out, the new bike lanes connect government offices, schools, shopping malls, food courts, markets, tourist spots like the zoo, and the Margalla Hills National Park.
Aziz said the city authorities plan to mark zebra crossings on all bike lanes to make them safe for pedestrians, and install signals at crossings in line with international standards.
Presently, the restored bike lanes are being used mainly by young people and foreign embassy staff for leisure and exercise, particularly in the evenings and at weekends.
Parents are especially happy about the cycle paths, because they offer an outdoor activity for children and can cut down on monthly school transportation costs.
"My children are now getting an opportunity for some physical activity with cycling instead of being glued to video games, music gadgets and (sitting) in front of computer screens - which has made them overweight and lazy," said Karam Daad, a father of three who works as a biology teacher in a private college in an upscale part of Islamabad.
Housewife Samina Mishaal, a resident in another smart area of town, spends almost $210 per month for her three children to commute to school. She has already persuaded her husband to invest $300 in bicycles for the children to ride between home and school, a distance of around 3 km.
"This one-off cost will allow us to cut our monthly spending on taxis. Besides, it will help my children overcome their obesity," Mishaal said.
Haroon General, head of the Islamabad Cycling Association, said the bike lanes are attracting onlookers.
"People will... get coaxed into cycling when they watch others riding bicycles," he said. "They really will find it hard not to enjoy the beauty of the lush green Margalla Hills where the track passes."
TURN DOWN THE HEAT
Environmentalists say the plan to open more bicycle lanes could help reduce the city's carbon footprint and curb escalating urban air pollution.
"The Pakistani capital has undergone expansion at a startlingly high pace," said Azhar Qureshi, executive director of Eco-Conservation Initiatives, a group focused on climate change solutions including green transport. "This has led to a steep rise in the use of private cars and motorbikes - and the average city temperature."
Travelling around Pakistan's crowded cities - such as Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore - has become extremely difficult, Qureshi noted. During the peak summer months from May to July, the cities turn into heat islands, partly due to emissions from buses and cars, he said.
"Promoting cycling culture on a mass scale can effectively... address heat island effects in urban centres and improve public health," Qureshi emphasised.
Some 70 percent of the journeys people make in urban areas are between 5 and 10 km, he said. Using bicycles for such short trips could help reduce pollution, making cities better places to live, he added.
(Reporting by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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