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Many Sri Lankans have switched to cycling due to the economic crisis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Sri Lanka is suffering its worst ever economic crisis. There are rolling blackouts, food shortages and fuel rationing. But doctors and environmentalists say there may be one unexpected benefit, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the capital, Colombo.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: M. Fernando used to catch a bus to his job as a security guard at a luxury hotel. But this spring, Sri Lanka ran out of U.S. dollars, struggled to buy fuel on international markets and basically ran out of gasoline. Inflation spiked. And suddenly, even public transit became a stretch for Fernando's budget.

M FERNANDO: Train and bus - they're very expensive. Yeah.

FRAYER: Bicycle is free.

FERNANDO: Yeah, free. My feet - I go.

FRAYER: Yeah, good for you.

So now 61-year-old Fernando cycles to work. His hotel actually gave him a bike.

FERNANDO: My office - they helped.

FRAYER: Your office helped you acquire a bicycle?

FERNANDO: Yeah. Yeah. Every day you come to work.

FRAYER: It allows you to get to work.

FERNANDO: Yes.

FRAYER: It's unclear just how many Sri Lankans like Fernando have switched to cycling in recent months. Bike salesmen Asanka Prabath says his phone is ringing off the hook.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

FRAYER: There it goes again (laughter).

Which would be good for business, except there's a problem.

No bicycles?

ASANKA PRABATH: No.

FRAYER: You've run out.

PRABATH: (Non-English language spoken). Not in stock.

FRAYER: He's out of stock.

PRABATH: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Sri Lanka's foreign currency crunch - well, it affects bicycles, too, because most of the fancy mountain bikes Prabath sells come from abroad. And these days, it's much more expensive, if not impossible, to import anything to Sri Lanka. Now there is one place where a shortage of imported bikes looks like an opportunity.

AAZIM MIFLAL: With all the power cuts, we have the generator running at the moment.

FRAYER: Oh, that's what this noise is.

MIFLAL: Yes.

FRAYER: This is a massive place.

Sri Lanka's biggest domestic bike factory. Manager Aazim Miflal says his third-generation family business had almost gone bust, laid off almost all of its staff. But now he's hiring them back to try to double production to almost half a million bikes this year. He shows me as bestseller, a simple gearless cruiser with fenders.

Oh, I like the purple ones.

MIFLAL: More of a city bike. And then we're looking at the traditional bike.

FRAYER: Miflal says Shimano gears and disc brakes are out. Simple, easy-to-repair bikes are in. Now, all of this is great news to Asela Abeydeera, a Sri Lankan doctor who's been preaching the health benefits of cycling to his countrymen for years. But he had trouble convincing them.

ASELA ABEYDEERA: There's this famous song - bicyclist, the vehicle of poor man. That song affected the society not to cycle. Now it's changed.

FRAYER: So much so that Colombo's mayor recently inaugurated new bike paths across the city because it's not the most bike-friendly place, Dr. Abeydeera acknowledges.

ABEYDEERA: Those who are starting cycling, this is very challenging.

FRAYER: Yeah, I mean, there's a train right here, passing on one side. There's a bus on the other. You know, it's not a beginner cyclist's city.

And yet that same Colombo coastal highway is where I met M. Fernando, the first-time cyclist riding his bike to the hotel where he works. He has had what he calls a few incidents with motorists.

FERNANDO: Two incidents.

FRAYER: You fell. Oh, you have a scar on your arm.

FERNANDO: Small damage.

FRAYER: But he keeps pedaling to get to work, to keep his job, to just keep going, which is what all Sri Lankans are trying to do right now. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL SONG, "COME THROUGH AND CHILL FEAT. J COLE AND SALAAM REMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Susitha Fernando