Q&A: A visitor’s perspective on India’s shifting bike scene

Posted by Michael Andersen (News Editor) on November 6th, 2013 at 9:47 am

Source: BikePortland

Far from home: Bangalore bike shop entrepreneur Pavan Muthanna on N. Williams this week. (Photos © M. Andersen/BikePortland)

Far from home: Bangalore bike shop entrepreneur
Pavan Muthanna on N. Williams this week.
(Photos © M. Andersen/BikePortland)

Pavan Muthanna starts his story in a way that a lot of Portland bike shop owners would recognize — maybe a lot of Portlanders in general.

“I decided that I hated my corporate job,” said Muthanna, 40. “And I quit it.”

Today, the eleven-month-old, five-employee shop that Muthanna launched afterward is one of a handful of commuter-owned bike stores that are feeding a “movement” in Bangalore that he said is new to his native city (population 4.3 million, about the size of the San Francisco metro area): the idea that bicycles are something you use for transportation not because you have to, but because you want to.

With one week left in his course at Portland’s United Bicycle Institute, Muthanna sat down with BikePortland to have a drink and talk about intersections, helmets, auto parking prices and other oddly familiar topics from a perspective I’d never heard before.

“Typically the guys that buy the better bikes, the $300 to $400 bikes, are guys who have lived in the States for a bit. They’re like, ‘Woah, that is nice. I want some part of that.’ And the easiest part of that to replicate, typically, is the cycling.”
— Pavan Muthanna, UBI student and Bangalore bike shop owner

What brought you to Portland?

Initially I was looking for places in Asia: maybe Singapore, Hong Kong. But UBI came out tops in a lot of the surveys. It came down to UBI or this other place in Colorado, but I heard better things about UBI. So I decided to put some money down and do this.

I had no idea UBI was competitive on a global level.

In this class, there’s three Indians and one guy from Singapore, out of 16. Apparently it is the highest international-exposure class so far. It is a small place, but the quality of instruction, it’s top-notch. And I love this city — the way the city’s expanded its horizons to make sure that cycling is a safe and integral part of traffic management.

You say that might be starting to sprout in Indian cities, too.

It’s taken a while — starting about six years ago — but there are people who treat the bicycle as not just something you use when you don’t have enough money to buy a car, but who treat the bicycle as a much-loved tool. Because they have a car and they want more out of a commute. That’s really where we come in.

Where the sweet point in an American bicycle store would probably be the $300, $400 mark, in India it’s closer to $100 to $200. Typically the guys that buy the better bikes, the $300 to $400 bikes, are guys who have lived in the States for a bit. They’re like, ‘Woah, that is nice. I want some part of that.’ And the easiest part of that to replicate, typically, is the cycling.

There are at least three bike shops like ours in Bangalore — bike shops that are run by riders. The classical Indian bike shop is run by a businessman who doesn’t ride.

Outside Muthanna's shop, a converted house in Bangalore.(Video still by Rishabh Raghavan)

Outside Muthanna’s shop, a converted house in Bangalore.(Video still by Rishabh Raghavan)

I feel like we talk all the time here in Portland about Europe, and never about Asia or Africa where there are all these fast-fast growing cities. So I wanted to get a first-person take on how that’s playing out. Are there certain cities in India that are more bike-friendly than others?

There are. First, you have to understand that when you say that a city is bike-friendly in India, it’s on a very different magnitude there than it is here. It’s not like we have bicycle lanes or anything like that. It just means that if you’re cycling in traffic, then there’s a good chance that — there’s an even chance that you won’t be knocked off. Having said that, traffic isn’t half as fast there as it is here. It’s very congested.

Let’s say you’re at a red light. Here, the cars are separated by, what four feet? Three feet? Six inches is not uncommon in India. We just try and squeeze too many people in. For example, I’ve seen this here: You’re at a crossroads. This guy goes, and this guy goes. In India, invariably, this causes a traffic jam. Every time. (Slams table.) And you know how it sorts itself out? It takes some good Samaritan to get the hell out of his car or off his bike, stand in the middle of the road and direct traffic. You have to see it to believe it.

I think it’s sociological. America and Europe — you got cars a lot before Asia or Africa did. It’s a pendulum. You’ve hit the stop. “How many cars do I need? I’m not excited by that any more.” Ergo the bicycle.

Indian car ownership is on the rise, right?

Car ownership is going through the roof. As a kid in the 70s and 80s, my parents owned a car, and we were one of relatively few families to. It must have been something like one in 20. Maybe way less. Liberalization happened in 1990. What quick money has done is put an incredible number of cars on the roads.

Getting people to understand that you have rights and entitlements is difficult. If you have a cyclist and a motorist, the motorist thinks he’s entitled because he is driving a bigger, more expensive car. The kind of cyclist who rides a bike that looks international and is wearing a helmet and lights is likely to get a little more respect.

But we have uncounted millions, I suppose, of people who cycle because it’s a compulsion. And these are cycles who would cost you, in U.S. terms, maybe $50. Carpenters, electricians. A, they have no sense of their own entitelement, and B, nobody’s about to give it to them. I was on a ride, just going around town on Sunday morning with my friend. And there’s this guy, probably a mason or something, he’s cycling on his old steel — the kind of bike you used to see all the time in Africa or China. And he just gets wiped out by a bus. I mean, the bus jumped the curb, plowed over him.

Killed him?

Yeah. Me and a bunch of people ran there. He’d broken I think all of his internal organs. You call an ambulance — there are some good ambulance services, I have to say that — but by the time they got there…

Jesus. It’d be a huge deal if it happened here.

A huge deal. This kind of thing is not uncommon is the point I’m making.

Muthanna said he doesn't think the West does everything right, but he's deeply frustrated with India's streets and urban planning.

Muthanna said he doesn’t think the West
does everything right, but he’s deeply frustrated with
India’s streets and urban planning.

I read something about parts of India getting rid of paid auto parking.

It was a few years ago. Parking on some roads is free and on some roads is paid, just like it is here. And all of a sudden they passed an ordinance or whatever saying parking from now on is going to be free. It got so chaotic. What actually happened is it was free on the face of it, but you had a bunch of people who said, I’m going to stand here, I’m going to guide cars into place, and I’m going to charge $1. It’s not legal, but the only way you could get parking for your car was to pay one of these guys.

So they made it free as a favor to the cars, but the spaces actually had value, so then people seized that value.

It was one of those really stupid things. When it comes to urban planning, I think we have a lot to learn. We really need the politicians and urban planners to understand that there are concerned parties that are not all on four wheels. Like I was saying, it’s the pendulum. And when it’s swinging back, it’ll be a little easier, but right now we’re going toward a place where money equals a big car and a big house.

Obviously this is something Indians are going to need to to figure out for Indians. But I think people who read BikePortland tend to be engaged in the backward movement of that pendulum and would love to help people in other countries think about all the better ways to use urban space. Is there anything we can do here?

I believe there is. Don’t ask me how, but I would like to see Portland and the West Coast say, “These are mistakes we made. Don’t go down that road, because then you’re going to have to backtrack, and that’s going to be painful.” One thing I do believe about the American system is that if the American system actually sees people wanting to do something right, there’s this groundswell of wanting to help.

Two of Muthanna's employees at Cyclists for Life.(Video still by Rishabh Raghavan)

Two of Muthanna’s employees at Cyclists for Life.(Video still by Rishabh Raghavan)

I’m sure it’s not a one-way street. What can Americans learn from Indians in terms of transportation, urban planning?

Not much. We’re incredibly crowded. My point is, hey, even in the footprint occupied by a compact car, you could have six bikes.

Do people tend to wear helmets?

What I would call more more privileged riders do, most of them. For example, if a customer comes to my shop, I would not let him or her take a test ride without a helmet. And I would kind of hope that by doing so, I am driving home the point that helmets are important. I’ll also give them a helmet free with the bike. So a lot of the people in India — in fact, a surprising number of people compared to the people in Portland — wear helmets. All my friends do. That’s also because the chances of being knocked down are way larger.

Do you follow the anti-helmet argument in the West?

There’s an anti-helmet argument in the East. My mom’s a doctor. I have had a couple of very nasty falls on a motorcycle. The helmet saved me. I understand pro-choice, sure. But the way I see it is, if you’re going to be in the emergency room because you weren’t wearing a helmet versus you get away with a few scrapes because the helmet burst apart on impact — I’m like, you know what? You’ve got a family, maybe you have kids, you definitely have people who love and care about you. I’m pro-helmet. I may be an exception, but I’m pro-helmet.

The anti-helmet argument is the polar opposite of this. It hinges on choice, but in the Indian context there are a couple interesting sidetracks to that. The biggest one is it’s hot. The second biggest is it’s going to spoil my hairstyle.

Is there a kinship between the motorbike and the pedal bike?

You’d hope. No. If anything, it’s competitive and it’s quite nasty. I think the Indian bicyclists’ biggest challenges in order of importance are the auto rickshaw, buses and motorcycles. Surprisingly enough, you have less trouble from cars. Probably because they tend to keep more toward the center of the road, because the sides of the road have more potential for a flat tire. But I’ve been elbowed and hit from behind and stuff mostly by motorized auto-rickshaws.

How fast is a car moving on a street in Bangalore?

Statistics show that the average speed in Bangalore is about 20 kilometers an hour [12 mph]. On a good day, I can keep up with a car.

That’s why I’m surprised that bikes aren’t seen as a better alternative.

You’ve got to understand what we’re wired like as a people. We’re lazy; I’m not kidding. You live in this place where you can sweat at the drop of a hat. You’re thinking, hey, I have this little cocoon-like thing. Why ever not? I’ve been on my bike all day today. Not a drop of sweat. If this were India, I’d want a shower. I have a shower in my bike shop for the exact same reason.

Do kids ride bikes in India?

I have a 10-year-old daughter. I got her a bike — a Huffy, the definitive American child bike. And she’s a really good cyclist. You know how you can see somebody on a bike and you’re like, yeah, there’s a natural balance, it flows? She’s a good rider. I live in a gated community. As a dad, I do not have the courage to let her out of it.

Does she want to?

No. Anybody in their right minds would not want to. You have to be, I think, a little mad to want to cycle in India. My mother was serious about it. She’s always known I was a little offbeat, a little left-of-center. When I started riding to work, she was seriously concerned. Do you really know what you’re doing? Do you really want to do this? Is it worth it?

What’d you tell her?

I was like, yeah, it’s really worth it, I really want to do it, it’s no more risky than riding a two-wheeler. I get my exercise. And most importantly, I like it. Riding a bike isn’t as risky as you think as long as you understand some of the unwritten rules of the road: Typically, watch your back. She’s relaxed about it, because I’ve been doing it for years.

Would anybody wear Lycra?

Not so much on the commute. But for the weekend ride, all the time. And you’d be surprised how many high-end bikes there are out there. I’ve seen everything from Benottos to Cannondales. What you don’t see much of is carbon frames, because you’d just break those in a heartbeat on our potholes. But the road bikes don’t get used inside of town. There’s a clear difference.

What advice do you have for someone visiting Bangalore who wants to ride there?

Wear a helmet. Wear glasses; there’s a lot of dust. Our suspended particulate count is a lot higher. We burn a lot of diesel. Wear lights. Do not assume that you have the same privileges there from the automobile community that you do there. I know it seems difficult, but really this is a paradise compared to India. Watch your back. Don’t ride on dark roads alone. And know that there is a community of other bikers out there that is slowly but surely increasing.

Qs & As edited and rearranged for brevity. Muthanna heads home next week, by way of his brother in Seattle. You can watch a video about his shop, Cyclists for Life, here: