IRAN: On city streets, another 'green' movement rolls out
Every day 35-year-old shopkeeper Reza Baqerpour Uskowi takes the subway from his west Tehran home, gets off at the Sarsabz Metro stop and walks over to the Bicycle House, where he slips his card into a reader, pulls out a bicycle and then rides the rest of the way to work
"It's just a couple of kilometers away," said the fabric vendor, among thousands of residents in the capital who are slowly taking advantage of a new fad that shows much about the changing values of Iran's middle class.
As soon as Morteza Majidi, 26, opens the Bicycle House at 7 a.m., riders as diverse as high school and college students, engineers, doctors and younger merchants rush to borrow the 40 bicycles he carries for a few hours.
The municipality has established a dozen of such bicycle venues in one district of the city as part of an experimental program to help ease traffic congestion, improve air quality and cater to the desires of increasingly health- and fitness-oriented Iranians.
The program resembles similar ones launched in European cities, except for one glaring feature.
Even though women are also eager to rent the bicycles, they can't because of Islamic and cultural restrictions.
"First we should pave the way culturally," said Manouchehr Daneshmand, a veteran bicyclist who oversees a branch of the Bicycle Houses. "We should let the eyes of people get used to it, and when everybody gets used to riding bicycles in public, then we gradually let women ride."
Membership costs about $2 a year to borrow bicycles as many times as one wants for a maximum of four hours. Every month, the members with the most hours logged win an Iranian-made bicycle. Last month college freshman Hooman Mohammadi won a bike after he took 300 trips to run errands of about two or three hours each.
Daneshmand said that in the last nine months, 6,000 memberships have been issued in just this one of Tehran's 22 districts. Members range in age from 12 to 70.
"We have clients ride all the way to Tehran Bazaar every day and come back," he said.
The program is set to expand in the next Persian calendar year, which begins in March.
Because Tehran is built along a dramatic mountain slope, the program organizers have asked a company to design bicycles that can handle the downhills and uphills, perhaps even ones with rechargeable engines that can give riders a hand going uphill.
All riders of bicycles are insured in case of injuries or liability "In the past nine months since we have launched this pilot plan of urban free-of-charge cycling, nobody was injured," Daneshmand said.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran
Photo: One of numerous free bicycle depots launched by Tehran's municipal government. Credit: Ramin Mostaghim / Los Angeles Times