Embedding Cycling in Culture: With Mallika Arya & Gowri Omanakuttan

12 min. read

Mallika Arya is a Senior Campaigner at Purpose. Based in Delhi she has been working on Bengaluru Moving, a Bangalore specific project for the last two years. She now leads the sustainable mobility network in Delhi and Bangalore: a network that has brought together over 15 organisations to work on accelerating the adoption of non motorised transport and public transport in cities and phasing out of ICE vehicles. She has been recognised as one of the young and emerging environmentalists from the Asia Pacific region by the Global Peace Initiative for Women. 

Gowri Omanakuttan is a Campaigner with Purpose also working on the Bengaluru campaign as part of the Sustainable Mobility Network. Her background is outside of mobility, but coming with a broad range of communication experience, living in Bangalore automatically makes urban movement centre stage.


Could you explain a little about Purpose, and the approach the organisation takes to creating urban change?

Mallika: Purpose is a global social impact creative campaigning agency. We have a strong belief in people powered change. There are a couple of different pieces that fall into this approach.

The first element within that is understanding that any social movement comprises of laddering up from small actions to campaigns to create a larger movement.

The next is narrowing down what kind of change we really want to see in the city. ‘Is it a behavioural change, is it a perception change, is it infrastructure, or is it policy.’ With Bengaluru Moving we are now in the third stage of the campaign but with each stage we have different kinds of change that we’re targeting.

The next part is understanding who has the power to create and influence change. That is where we start thinking about audiences as more active participants in a campaign rather than just passively consuming something. For Bengaluru Moving we started to think about young working professionals in the city.

Then comes building the narrative. You know who holds the power, but how do you embed narrative into places and spaces that those people are. You want to bring them into the space and for them to be champions for sustainable mobility — to champion the bicycle as a mode of transportation — so how do you really craft that narrative into their current life? We worked with young content creators, so-called influencers, popular media because that’s what our audience was engaging with, but had to make sure to embed it without it feeling or looking forced.

The final piece is understanding the participation strategy — What does participation of your audience look like in a campaign? We want to move people from passive to active. We don’t want them to be consuming the campaign, we want them to be participating in the campaign. So what is that journey for your active participants?

Your work embeds new narratives in current culture and gives power to people. How do you ensure your campaigns enable people to make the step to become active in this journey?

Gowri: With internet penetration, we now see popular culture being defined by brands and creator driven trends. But we’re beginning to realise that there is a huge appetite for people who want to work on problem solving. What we need are entry points for how to solve these problems. As campaigners, our role is to help them identify what these soft entry points are. A lot of that reflects back into what are their interests, what works for them as an audience. We want to understand how these entry points can directly speak to their pain points, and as Mallika mentioned, help them engage meaningfully and discover how they can put their time and skill sets behind problem solving.

Photo: Sujata Khanna


G: Cycling has been relegated to a hobby and not as something for adults. This is strange because the idea of the Indian common man was someone powered by cycling, until recently. Looking back into our histories — only as far as parents and grandparents — cycling was the primary mode of transport; but we’ve managed to forget that these mobility patterns existed. We have relegated it to a leisure activity, and the way we build cities is reflective of this cultural idea.

Perception is changing however, and it’s a new phenomenon rather than a resurgence of the old wave that is emerging.

M: Although cycles are associated with leisure and children, there is still a strong association between a cycle and socioeconomic standing in society.

We often talk about livelihood cyclists in India. These are people that have no other option but to travel to and from work by bike. This is a concept that we need to break. Why is it that adults only use a cycle because they can’t afford anything else. When it’s their only choice. That for me is a massive barrier that we as campaigners, and people working in the mobility space need to reimagine. Can we reimagine a city in which people take a cycle because they choose to, not because they’re forced.

The other thing is that we see a lot more men cycling than women. This is due to issues of safety, and a lack of opportunity for women to be taught how to use a cycle.

G: In the context of India, the the use and user of the cycle plays deeply into the class, caste, and gender differences. Active choice is the narrative needed, because right now it’s guided by these social constructs.

How is the Bengaluru Moving campaign tackling these challenges, particularly for vulnerable groups like women, families and those with low income?

M: Through the Bengaluru Moving campaign, both soft and hard barriers have been targeted. There is the perception side — are people seeing the bicycle as mobility and not just for leisure. For that we worked with influencers and content creators and also  created bicycle audio guided rides. Although this comes in the leisure bucket, if people don’t get out there to start with, it is very hard for them to then appreciate cycling as transportation.

On the harder side of things, with partners such as Sensing Local and Janaagraha we’ve helped citizens understand what they need to do at a local level to potentially unlock new or utilise existing funding to put in better infrastructure at ward levels. Because a lot of people say ‘the infrastructure is not there, it’s not safe for me to cycle on the streets’, and through campaigns like this, we want to increase citizen participation in decision making at the local level. That is when those barriers come down.

In terms of a more tactical tangible thing we launched in the second phase of the campaign, we have this Cycle School which I’ll let Gowri talk about as she was on ground and made it happen.

G: The cycle school started from a place of inquiry, where we spoke to women from livelihood and leisure groups, to try to understand what the cycling landscape in Bangalore meant to them. We heard a mix of responses, but the overwhelming response was that the gender barrier means women in the household don’t get the opportunity to learn how to cycle.

In urban centres it may seem like these barriers don’t exist, but the more women we spoke to, the more experiences we heard of male figures attempting to teach a woman to cycle, but not having the patience to help them through that journey.

Without the ability to ride a bike, they can’t make the choice to use cycling for transport or not. For us that was the soft entry.

The cycle school for women was essentially a safe space for women to come and learn how to cycle. Volunteers gave attention for about an hour each day, and we did five of those workshops. While the first group took some time to establish itself, but from the third group onwards we saw an overwhelming response, girls as young as 7 and the oldest people 65. For many, being able to cycle is just a bucket list item that they need to check off from childhood. But for many others it opens up their universe. They can then make a conscious mobility decision.

M: We understand that the cycle school could only happen five times [in this campaign]; but we want to make it permanent. It’s a dream of Gowri and mine to do that together. The campaign allowed us to test this and see that an appetite exists, and how it could change someone’s life. The fact that this pilot has happened shows that we need more cycles schools everywhere. It’s simple. It can bring mental and social barriers down.

You’ve spoken about active audiences being able to make their own choices once they experience your campaign within their current cultural sphere. Is there anything you can add about how city-wide narratives are strengthened by active dialogue and engagement by communities at the hyperlocal level?

G: We have seen through the campaign that you can’t create demand from nothing. It has to be harnessed from a place or a gap that already exists. At ward level, the smallest administrative and political unit in cities like Bengaluru, people are beginning to organise themselves and make their own choices. To make these they need support, which is where we’re able to help them in a mobility sense; but it’s very hard to do in wards where there is no existing interest in mobility infrastructure or public transport. Here outcomes cannot be purely driven by a campaign, the campaign must be driven by people. This community participation is what will ensure that three or five years down the line campaigns like Bengaluru Moving will not need to exist, and instead they turn into people-driven movements.

The idea that the goal of the campaign is for the campaign to disappear and become a part of the community’s organic culture is a strong message. What then are your hopes for the future of mobility in Bengaluru and for the perception of the cycle in India as a whole?

M: Bangalore is infamously known for its traffic. Look at the Tomtom traffic index and it’s always up at the top; so the hope is never to be featured again.

The other is having an equal choice across modes of transport. Right now we don’t have a choice because we choose what is most convenient; and unfortunately what is most convenient for many of us is personal vehicles. Choice and convenience need to merge.

I also hope to see true prioritisation of non-motorised transport. We’ve seen commitments being made, but what does true prioritisation of a pedestrian and a cyclist really look like in a city like Bangalore?

G: There’s a pervasive idea that cycling is dangerous, and that cars are the only safe solution. Many households with purchasing power have this conversation, specifically with a gendered lens, and choose to use motorised transport. The middle classes are the ones that have a choice, and what I want is for active mobility to be a viable option for them.

Furthermore, organising transportation and planning at a regional level is important for us as a whole country. In each city usage patterns are really different, and unless we start having conversations about what this means for our quality of life, it’s going to be really hard to solve as isolated groups and industries. So for Bengaluru Moving as a whole, and for us, it’s to see departments talking to each other, working with more diverse CSOs and responding to citizenry, and establishing the rights for pedestrians and cycles in a participatory manner.

What future do you see for culture influencing day to day mobility?

G: Immersive experience and audio is an expansive universe for me. I think there’s a great relationship between what audio can do as a non-arrestive medium, it doesn’t capture all your senses, but rather feeds back into an active lifestyle. I think there’s immense scope for new genres of stimulating content here.

A sub-campaign in Bengaluru Moving was Malleshwaram Hogona set in one of the oldest areas in the city. We worked with twelve street artists to create a 1.3km stretch of street art trail that was reflective of the experiences and imaginations of the area. It’s old Bangalore, both in tradition and infrastructure, so we explored narratives of what old and new can look like together along with local artists and residents. These created a space where residents from the neighbourhood could go through an immersive experience on routes that are not the main roads. Through this collaboration we were able to draw public attention to these walking and cycling routes which have now become synonymous with Bangalore’s popular culture. So many people flock there on the weekends to take in the art. The lines between culture, campaign and community are blurred.

Woman cycling on a busy pedestrian street in Bengaluru, a mural is on a wall in the backgroundImages: Bengaluru Moving