Pakistan breaks down gender barriers, one bike at a time

A new bike-sharing program has started up on a sprawling university campus in Islamabad. The goal was to reduce commute time, but it also brought an unexpected result: greater freedom for female students. 

Joel Ryan/Invision/AP/File
A woman pedals a bicycle in Venice Lido outside the Venice Film Festival. In Pakistan, a new bike share program is giving women easier access to transportation on university campuses.

For Senam Khan, one of the founders of a bike sharing scheme on a Pakistani university campus, the start-up has had unexpected – and welcome – consequences.

The aim of the five young entrepreneurs who conceived the sharing scheme, named CYKIQ, was to solve the problem of covering long distances on the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) campus in the capital Islamabad.

But as well as convenience for students, CYKIQ has helped campus society "accept that women are equal to men and their modes of transport should also be the same," said 21-year-old Ms. Khan, in the final year of her industrial design degree at NUST.

CYKIQ "provided all of us a simple solution to our most dire problem – long walking distances and short attendances," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In a conservative nation where women are conspicuously absent in public spaces, and the sight of a woman on a bike is a rarity, more than half of CYKIQ's customers are women.

Hitching rides in cars is common for male students, but, according to another CYKIQ co-founder, Ans Shahzad, "females are hesitant to sit in cars and or jump on motorbikes with their male counterparts."

Female students at NUST have embraced the scheme, launched earlier this year, in which bikes can be booked and returned through a mobile app.

"CYKIQ is a savior for me in this scorching heat; it's reasonable, easy and fun," said 21-year old Umme Hani, also an industrial design student and living in NUST's hostel.

There are 50 imported bikes strewn across 10 locations where cycles can be parked for easy access without the need for elaborate docking stations – covering an area of nearly 1,000 acres of campus – including the hostel, canteen, classrooms and administration block.

The response has been so overwhelming, especially from women, that by mid October, 250 more bikes will be added.

"Uber for bicycles," is how Mr. Shahzad, a 23-year-old engineer and one of the five founders, described the scheme.

"It took us nearly three years of working all days and nights to fine tune it to perfection," he said.

It is the first such venture at a Pakistani college, although at least 33 universities in the United States have some kind of bike sharing program.

Syeda Farvah Sameen, an MBA student, said she finds biking "liberating."

The ability to move around quickly "just by the swiping of a card" has made her life on campus easier.

"I don't mind cycling from one end of the campus to the other or having a friendly race with a fellow CYKIQ-er!" she said, laughing.

Bicycles are rented out for 500 Pakistani rupees ($4.70) a month, 250 rupees ($2.30) a week or a daily rate of 80 rupees (75 cents).

The program aims to reach 10,000 students with 300 cycles. "If the shared model isn't used then there would have to be thousands of cycles to cater for all the customers," Shahzad said.

And a CYKIQ customers "never has to worry about flat tires or loose brakes," he added.

CYKIQ is expanding to other university campuses, and in the longer term it aims to emulate bike-sharing schemes in cities such as London and Paris that allow users to travel smoothly around the city and reduce congestion and pollution.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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