Friday, November 24, 2006

Re-cycling Transport

[Probably the most 'impactful' of all pieces I've ever done. The DoSA (Dean of Student Affairs for the uninitiated) immediately granted provisional funds to get something done after reading this in the current issue of InsIghT. Getting things done; now that's the tougher part.]

About two years ago, a friend from IIT Delhi had come to visit me. I welcomed him with the customary stroll around the campus, to let him admire the famous lakes and the picturesque scenery. But, unlike any other person I have taken around campus, his reaction was most animated when he saw the multitude of unused cycles lying in a heap near the Main Gate. His reason-these cycles would have been ideal for the ‘alternative campus transport system using community bicycles’ project he was working on. That was when I first heard of this idea and given the similar situations of the no-bike policy in both institutes, it made a lot of sense to me. Somehow I chose to ignore it back then.

Now, feeling the pinch of the no-bike policy coupled with the sudden vanishing act of the tum-tums and further compounded by the fact that I live in Hostel 13, the time was just right for me to ponder over feasible alternatives. The community bicycle program that I shall describe perfectly fit the bill.

A community bicycle program is not an entirely new concept. It has been successfully implemented in several countries and university campuses. In all these places, the basic idea is the same. Old and unused cycles are collected and painted for recognition. These are then placed at various hubs inside the operation area. Users can issue cycles from these hubs, via a manual or electronic interface, against their names for free or a nominal fee required for maintenance. The cycles can then be deposited at any hub inside the area, which makes it very helpful for short-term users.

Given the pathetic state of internal transport in the institute, this program could be adapted to work as an excellent environment friendly alternative transport system. Here’s what could be

1. The old and unused cycles , so many of them,at the Main Gate , hostel basements and other areas could be collected and repaired. In addition, a pool of people willing to donate their cycles when they leave the campus could be made to refresh the cycle bank every year. The good thing with cycles is that the cost of repair would be minimal.

The endless cycle: Heap of unused cycles lying near main gate

2. These cycles should be painted with a uniform colour to facilitate recognition. As a result, even if one is stolen, it will have little or no resale value and it will become easier to track lost or stolen cycles.

3. Hubs would be chalked out at major activity points and a fixed number of cycles kept at each hub for issue.

4. The cycles would be issued against ID cards, in a similar manner as library books are. Card readers, if possible, could be used at the hubs by security guards who could double up as hub caretakers. This will also ensure round-the-clock operation.

5. The issuing process could also be automated, as the IIT Delhi students have mentioned in their proposal. The cycles would be locked by magnetic locks which would open once
the ID card validation takes place. Thevalidation process would involve magnetic strips, like ATM cards. This automated process, although better, could take time and much more investment.

6. The cycles would be issued for use only within the campus for a fixed amount of time, failing which a suitable fine would be imposed on the offenders. This fine could be used for their maintenance.

7. A separate hub for cycle maintenance could also be made for users to deposit defective bikes.

Small repairs like punctures etc. should be the user’s responsibility while bigger damages with justifiable causes could be looked into at the maintenance hub. Some might argue that once in operation, certain issues are bound to crop up with this system.

1. The peak hour traffic, when all students will move between the hostel and academic areas, could create an imbalance in the hub pools.

2. Estimating the extent of damage to a bike and subsequently holding a person responsible for it could prove to be a roadblock.

3. Even though ID card validation and uniform paints of the cycles would deter theft, it is difficult to eliminate it altogether.

However, solutions to these are by no means impossible. Putting everything in perspective, it would be a nice initiative if this alternative transport arrangement could be started on a trial basis. All issues regarding operation could then be identified and possibly rectified. Who knows,
we could have a long-term solution to all our commuting woes in the future.
To read more about the proposal and feasibility reports of the IIT Delhi students,
please visit this link.

Credits: Kaushal for giving me this idea. Audi and Krishna for co-writing and editing respectively. Abir for taking the wonderful picture which in itself speaks more words than I could ever write.