07 December, 2014

Car-free Days in Lahore

It has been called one of life’s great freedoms.  I discovered it when I bought a Raleigh and  pedalled off one Sunday morning, the silence broken by a cacophony of bird song and water mills in the distance.  An auburn sunrise never seemed so enchantingly beautiful.  Time seemed to stand still even though the bike computer continued to calculate the cadence, speed and stuff.  By the time I was back home, I was hooked on to a passion that has seen my retirement years reverse into an unbelievable twenty-something feeling, full of youthful liberty of yesteryears.  I have been in Never-Never Land for the last five years!

I had to check out if the sentiment was for real, and there was no better way than to join a weirdly named cycling group called Critical Mass Lahore.  Having received an anonymous invitation via Facebook, a click is all it took to be part of a group that is now a close-knit family of amateur cyclists.  It would be worthwhile digressing a little, and explain to the readers about Critical Mass.

Critical Mass is a world-wide cycling event held on weekends in over 300 cities. It started in San Francisco in 2003 as a protest movement to reclaim the streets by the cyclists, though the participants insisted that the event should be viewed as a ‘spontaneous social gathering’. This stance allowed Critical Mass to defend their legal position for not pre-notifying the municipal and law enforcing authorities, who termed it as an organised protest. For the same legal reasons, the event’s date, time and route, is not publicised in North America and Europe. The cyclists just trickle in small numbers at a predetermined meeting point, and then ride out when reaching a sizeable number or a ‘critical mass’.

In Pakistan, Critical Mass has three chapters, viz Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, each independent of the others.  The apolitical movement did not have any legal issues to contend with, as the number of cyclists was never large enough to ruffle the traffic, the law enforcers, or the politicos.  Critical Mass Lahore (CML) has, for instance, an average turn-out of 20 participants for a typical Sunday ride.  For the record, the biggest turn-out for a Critical Mass event was in Budapest, where 80,000 participants rode out on 20 April, 2008.

While Critical Mass has no organisational set-up, nor an hierarchy, the three Pakistani chapters do have their respective Facebook pages managed by their administrators. It is here that news and views on cycling are exchanged, and forthcoming events (rides) are posted.  Membership is by request, without any fees or any other pre-requisites to be fulfilled; even bike ownership is not a requirement, and I know one cyclist who has been happily riding on borrowed bikes for a couple of years now!  
Having tried to visit the Inner City a couple of times, I had to give up for a trivial reason – I had nowhere to park the car safely. Not so since I took up cycling. Thanks to our CML rides, we have visited the Wazir Khan Mosque, Wazir Khan Hamaam, Fakir Khana Museum and Sunehri Masjid. We have ridden the narrow alleys, sampled halwa-puri and siri-paye breakfasts, and exchanged early morning greetings – always a hearty khair hovay – with good-humoured locals.
CML rides have taken participants to virtually every locality of Lahore, and each time there has been a sighting of some monument or a historic building that was hitherto unknown to someone.  In Lahore, culture and heritage can be just a few pedals away, so to speak, as we have discovered. While the average distance covered on each ride is about 25-km, CML regularly goes beyond the city limits. Rides to Changa Manga Forest, Ravi Siphon, Wagah and Ganda Singh Border Posts, and even Hiran Minar in Sheikhupura, have featured on CML’s itinerary. These longer rides are, however,  not wholly covered on bicycles; a pick-up truck is usually hired for these, to cover part of the distance.  We have had delightful company on trucks many a time, and have even celebrated a member’s birthday on the motorway, with a lashing wind constantly blowing out the candles.  It is on such occasions that I joyfully discover my senior citizen status mixing quite well with the youngsters’ pranks and tomfoolery.

A keenly awaited annual CML event is the tough 100-km Lahore-Kasur-Lahore ride.  A group of 16-18 participants usually turns up, though half the number complete the full distance.  A lunch break in Kasur’s main bazaar, and a visit to Bulleh Shah’s shrine usually stirs up the locals in surprising ways. I recall the last time when a group of children tried speaking to us ‘foreigners’ in English, only to hear our replies in Urdu with utter disbelief.  It is also not usual for some of the fair-skinned local cyclists to come under special scrutiny at police or military pickets, what with the few foreign tourists being a novelty in the country’s prevailing security situation.
CML rides have served as excellent history and culture field trips, and Lahore continues to throw up an endless mélange of mosques, mausoleums and shrines to be discovered. The convenience of a bicycle in getting through narrow streets, and without any parking issues, makes these trips even more popular. Ride participants have also had the opportunity of taking some spectacular photographs;  the fun of it all has been to post them on social media sites within minutes, providing virtually a live coverage of the event to fascinated friends and relatives. 

Though the CML rides are undertaken at an easy pace due to constraints of vehicular traffic, the distances covered are enough to get the riders panting and sweating. It is no coincidence that all cyclists of the group are absolutely fit, and always in good humour, I may add. 

One of the objectives of CML is to support gender equality in outdoor activities like cycling. On this account, CML has done reasonably well, with about a quarter of the participants on every ride being girls. They have managed to talk their parents out of any apprehensions, learnt to negotiate through atrocious traffic, and also know how to deal with the stares of an awe-struck public in a completely nonchalant manner.  So far there have been no issues, and the group looks like an extended family wheeling around on jazzy bikes! Breaking with the stereotype cyclist does raise a few eyebrows, however, for Lahorites are used to seeing no more than the malis or chowkidars hunched over their beat-up roadsters.

Aneeqa Ali, who has been cycling with CML for almost four years, finds her cycling experience thrilling. “It has been an amazing experience pedaling on the streets of Lahore with a diverse group of people, who come together from different parts of the city, and different walks of life. CML is not just a platform for promoting cycling, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity for making new friends and sharing amazing experiences with them.”

Aneeqa thinks that riding in a group is quite safe, but that still doesn't help in getting rid of the stares. “I guess sometimes these stares are just out of curiosity, and very few times even appreciation. Riding in a group helps avoid any difficulties, but for a girl/woman to ride a bike alone on these streets can pose big problems, and I have had some bad experiences a few times. But that does not make me lose hope, and I am still determined to fight against the odds; with time I have even gotten better at tackling such situations.”

Environmental and social issues have been prime concerns that led Rafay Alam (an environmentalist himself) to organise Critical Mass in Lahore. He is of the opinion that, Lahore has sprawled on the back of cheap agricultural land and automobile financing, and has been designed for the benefit of car owners. Public transport, cyclists and pedestrians – the majority of commuting Lahore – find their city no less than dangerous to traverse. This development elitism fosters social and sexual discrimination. We have become a society that finds it perfectly acceptable that half of its population –  women, children, senior citizens and the physically handicapped – are effectively removed from social and economic interaction.  Critical Mass Lahore, for me, was an answer to these issues.”

Rafay would like to see the city of Lahore formally accept the vision of CML. “It would be a dream come true if the city of Lahore took the first step that so many other cities have taken, to safer streets and more equitable and sustainable cities: A car free day. I would appeal to the city of Lahore to consider closing a major artery one Sunday morning a month, from 6 am to noon, to allow pedestrians and cyclists to ‘reclaim’ their city. Shops and khokhas along the artery could support local businesses and recreation activity.”

Whether Rafay’s idea of closing a major road to vehicular traffic one Sunday a month gets a nod or not, his vision of CML is, happily, here to stay.  

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 7 December 2014.