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Uphill battle but Tehran aims to become bike-friendly

One sunny day, Tehran’s mayor and foreign diplomats rode bicycles through the Iranian capital to promote cycling — no mean feat in a city of steep roads, heavy traffic and toxic fumes. The metropolis of more than eight million people is choked with vehicles running on subsidised fuel and has limited infrastructure for alternative modes of transport.

But the city’s mayor, Pirouz Hanachi, believes trying to make a dent in the city’s traffic and pollution problem by promoting a bike-sharing initiative is worth the effort. 

Hanachi has tried to promote cycling by launching “Tuesdays without cars” when he and other team members use pedal power to get to and from the office. “We are not saying this is the solution, but it’s a short-term, accessible, cheap and productive” way to help “ease traffic and pollution a bit”, he said. “It won’t be like Amsterdam, but it can be a new experience.”

Downtown Tehran is notorious for its traffic jams and is regularly covered in vehicle exhaust smog, worsened by pollution from factories around the city limits. That is why the municipality is supporting a bike-sharing start-up called Bdood (“fumeless” in Farsi), the mayor said. The company’s orange bikes can now be seen in 147 stations across Tehran, according to its website

For the mayor, Tehran residents would ideally commute to work by cycling to the nearest metro station then taking the train. The municipality is “increasing cycling paths and trying to make bicycles more accessible,” he added.

Yet cyclists say a lack of dedicated infrastructure makes it difficult for the city to be bike-friendly. 

“Not at all,” laughed Farshad Rezayi when asked if Tehran were accommodating to cyclists. “Like, no way!” The 32-year-old chef, who said he is “addicted” to cycling, rides more than 30km a day to get to and from work.

He crosses highways and streets with few dedicated bike lanes. Where they do exist, he said, they have mostly been taken over by motorbikes. It is commonplace in Tehran to see motorcycles speeding down pavements. “A lot more infrastructure is needed for regular cycling to be a thing,” Rezayi said, adding that motorists and pedestrians mostly regard cyclists as “intruders”.

“Sometimes drivers harass you, pedestrians get nasty — from snide remarks to physical stuff, dangerous moves that could get you killed.”

Tragedy struck in June when a professional cyclist died in the capital after she was hit by a car. In her memory, a group of Tehran residents have launched a campaign called “White Pedal” to raise awareness about cycling. Part of the initiative involves purchasing bikes for impoverished children, said its co-manager, Mahboubeh Kohanzad.

Bdood co-founder Gholamhossein Qasemi said he dreams big, imagining an Iran with electric vehicles and “clean transportation”.

In the meantime, the bike-sharing service costs about 10 US cents for 30 minutes — about the same as a short shared-taxi ride — and can be accessed using an app.

Sarfaraz, unlocking a Bdood bike at Tehran’s bustling Valiasr Square, said he’d been using the service for more than a year and a half and was “very satisfied”. The 30-year-old marketer said he preferred the gearless bikes to taxis, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic — but not for long distances or uphill. 

Animator Nastaran Jabarnia, 29, said Bdood’s bikes inspired her to repair her own old one, although she said being a woman cyclist in Tehran posed certain additional challenges.

“Being cat-called, whistled at, or even cars tailing you and passing at high speed” were some of the problems she faced, she said. 

Aside from the physical and environmental hurdles, there is another challenge for Iranian women cyclists: ultra-conservatives consider it to be immoral. “I go out fully covered but still get stressed,”Jabarnia said. — AFP

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Amir Havasi
Amir Havasi
AFP reporter in Tehran, Iran. Formerly Business Journalist at Fintribune.

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