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Pedaling for Change: Cycling as a Catalyst for Sustainable Urban Mobility in Africa

We delve into the challenges and initiatives surrounding urban mobility in Africa. As the continent experiences rapid urbanization, increasing traffic congestion, air pollution, and road accidents have become critical issues. However, a shift towards sustainable urban mobility is emerging, spearheaded by organizations like Critical Mass Nairobi, advocating for cycling as a viable transportation mode. Cyprine, the Executive Director, emphasizes the importance of infrastructure, policies, and changing cultural perceptions to promote cycling and walking. The lack of supportive policies and infrastructure, negative cultural perceptions of cycling, and gaps in education pose significant challenges. Collaborative efforts between civil societies, government bodies, and international organizations, like the Sustainable Mobility for Africa initiative, aim to address these challenges. Initiatives such as the Kisumu Sustainable Mobility Plan and the Nairobi Bike Train demonstrate innovative solutions, highlighting the importance of community engagement, partnerships, education, and policy support in fostering sustainable urban mobility in Africa.

Urban mobility is a critical issue in Africa, where rapid urbanization and population growth have led to increased traffic congestion, air pollution, and road accidents.

In 2023, an estimated 60% of Africans are living in urban areas, up from 40% in 2010. By 2050, Africa is expected to be home to 2.5 billion people – many of whom will live in cities where they will increasingly use motorized transport. 

The number of motor vehicles in Africa is also projected to increase significantly, from 100 million in 2023 to 400 million in 2050. This will lead to even more traffic congestion and air pollution, and will also make it more difficult for people to afford transportation. This unprecedented growth is putting a strain on urban transportation systems, and many African cities are struggling to keep up.

However, there is also a growing movement towards sustainable urban mobility, driven by organizations such as Critical Mass Nairobi which is a nonprofit organization that has taken up the challenge of transforming our cities into safe, accessible, and liveable cities by using bicycles. They are a group of cyclists who are passionate about making a difference in their city. They believe that cycling is a sustainable, affordable, and healthy way to get around, and they are working to promote cycling as a viable transportation option in Nairobi.

Every last Saturday of the month, Critical Mass Nairobi hosts a group ride through the streets of Nairobi. The rides are a way for cyclists to come together and raise awareness on the benefits of cycling. They are also a way to show motorists and pedestrians that cyclists deserve to share the road. 

Cyprine, the Executive Director of Critical Mass Nairobi, advocates for more sustainable urban mobility in Africa.

“There are other modes of transport other than motorized transport out there that are better, healthier, good for the environment, good for the community and bring the community together,” she says.

Additionally, governments and international organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of sustainable urban mobility and investing in infrastructure and policies to support it. For example, In February 2021 the County Government of Kisumu and City of Kisumu launched the Kisumu Sustainable Mobility Plan (KSMP) . The mobility plan is a ten-year roadmap that aims to foster increased access for city residents by prioritizing walking, cycling, and public transport. 

Cyprine, who was part of the team that developed and adopted the KSMP, is proud of the work that has been done. She says, “ I am happy I was part of the team that supported the development and adoption of the Kisumu Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan.”

Furthermore, the African Development Bank launched the Sustainable Mobility for Africa initiative, which aims to promote sustainable urban mobility across the continent through investments in infrastructure, policies, and capacity building. The initiative has a target of mobilizing $10 billion in investments by 2030.

Several key challenges limit the transition toward sustainable mobility in African cities

In many African cities, the infrastructure for cycling and walking is either non-existent or poorly maintained, making it difficult and unsafe for people to use these modes of transportation. For example, a 2019 study by the World Bank found that only 10% of African cities have dedicated bike lanes. 

“If we had better infrastructure, we would have so many bicycles including electric bicycles. This means that people with disabilities or the elderly would have an easier and safer way of moving around. So having good infrastructure goes without saying. Even scooters and other types of soft mobilities all need somewhere to be used, and infrastructure is the biggest barrier to using those modes of transport,” explains Cyprine. 

The lack of policies and regulations also makes it difficult for businesses and individuals to invest in sustainable transportation options. For example, a 2020 study by the African Development Bank found that only 20% of African countries have policies promoting cycling. Unfortunately, these existing policies remain inadequate in guaranteeing the safety of cyclists, thereby necessitating them to be revised and updated.

“We do not have proper policies and laws that demand or advocate for sustainable mobility. Our policies and our laws are very vague when it comes to walking and cycling. So you find that when you try to push for walking and cycling infrastructure in certain places, our policies and laws do not really support us,” Cyprine says. 

Moreover, In some African cultures, there is a negative perception of cycling and walking. This can make it challenging to encourage people to use these modes of transportation, even when the infrastructure and policies are in place. For example, a 2018 study by the University of Nairobi found that 60% of Kenyans believe that cycling is a mode of transportation for poor people.

“A lot of us Africans are brought up to believe that car ownership is the next best thing after you finish school. The yardstick for being successful is being a driver or owning a car. So a lot of us aspire to own cars. So that really has a direct impact on the way we live our lives,and the way our cities are designed, because now when urban planners and engineers go outside, they see more people in cars. But ideally, more people are walking, but because cars occupy a lot of space, it is assumed that we have a lot of cars” Cyprine adds.

Cyprine also explains that there is a disparity between education and the reality of sustainable mobility, “When I was in school, we were not taught anything about sustainable mobility or even designing sustainable cities. I’ve also had a chance to look at the Civil Engineering curriculum and it also fails to capture anything on designing sustainable cities or sustainable mobility. So our curriculum is failing us. What the professionals are taught has a very big disconnect with what the reality on the ground is.”

NGOs and civil society such as Critical Mass Nairobi have played a crucial role in addressing the challenges of sustainable urban mobility in Africa.

“When we started organizing our social rides in 2014, we had barely 10 people, and now every month from 2017 we've been having close to 400 cyclists and over 10 people who are new, so that means it's only getting better and now when you go outside, we have, through the advocacy work that we've been doing, bike lanes that are coming up and being improved, ” says Cyprine. She adds, “We have now gone a step further to map all existing bike lanes in Nairobi and identifying and geolocating each and every barrier there is on those bike lanes. We did this because we want our demands to be backed by facts and data. Having this data will also help us make recommendations to the Government on how best to design cycling infrastructure moving forward.”

Government authorities also have a crucial role to play in promoting sustainable urban mobility in Africa. “I really want to thank the Kenyan Urban Roads Authority and the Nairobi City County Government for what they're doing. They're constructing a lot of walkways all over the city. We believe it is only a matter of time before we also start having more bike lanes constructedI can definitely see Nairobi having more people walking and cycling. “ adds Cyprine.

Collaboration and knowledge-sharing are essential for driving change in sustainable urban mobility

Cyprine emphasizes the importance of partnerships and cross-sectoral collaboration, “We recently did a cross-pollination of critical masses between ourselves, Addis Ababa Abuja, Cape Town, Mombasa, Jinja and Kampala where we brought together all the critical masses in Africa and organized a ride on the World Bicycle Day. It was really good because we were able to share our individual experiences and also empower each other.”

Cyprine highlights several innovative solutions for addressing the challenges of sustainable urban mobility in Africa such as their novel project, ‘The Nairobi Bike Train’. The Nairobi Bike Train is pegged on the concept of ‘safety in numbers’. Cyprine and her colleagues realized that there were hundreds of people who only cycled during the monthly rides organized by Critical Mass Nairobi. This meant that they were only cycling once a month. Other than getting people to cycle more as a group, the bike train concept is a way of encouraging people to use the bicycles for commuting.

“We looked at the whole of Nairobi, mapped the main traffic corridors, and developed a time schedule and stops for those places. The bike train is meant for different neighborhoods, and people can be picked up along the road at different pick up points which we called ‘Bike-stops’. Today we have 7 successful bike trains with the largest bike train having 247 members,’’ she explains.

Additionally, public-private partnerships can leverage the resources and expertise of both sectors to create sustainable mobility solutions. Community engagement is also essential for creating a sense of ownership and empowerment among users of sustainable mobility.

Education and training are also critical for promoting sustainable urban mobility in Africa.


Cyprine emphasizes the importance of educating people about the benefits of cycling and walking, as well as promoting a positive perception towards the same, “If we start instilling the knowledge that ownership of cars is not the next best thing, we could start making people fall in love with cycling more and walking more and make people understand that just because you are walking or cycling doesn't mean you are a poor man or you're just not able to afford a car.”

Finally, policies and infrastructure are essential for creating a sustainable urban mobility ecosystem. Cyprine highlights the need for supportive policies and regulations. “The Government can also look at other incentives such as tax breaks or award system for those who use active mobility Additionally, infrastructure investments are needed to create safe and accessible routes for cycling and walking.”

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