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Reaping the Urban Dividend: Sustainable and Safe Urban Mobility in Africa

Debashish Bhattacharjee and Stefanie Holzwarth

Rapid urbanization in Africa brings both opportunities and challenges. While urban areas have seen significant economic growth, issues like traffic congestion, road crashes, and lack of safe transport hinder progress. The "Reclaiming Streets for Pedestrians and Cyclists in Africa" project aims to address these challenges. It promotes safer street designs, integrating walking and cycling infrastructure. Through capacity building and pilot initiatives in Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Guinea, and Rwanda, the project enhances road safety and urban mobility. By emphasizing pedestrian and cyclist safety in national road safety frameworks and facilitating regional collaboration, it paves the way for safer and more sustainable urban transport systems across Africa.

The world’s most rapidly growing cities are in Africa. Since 1990, the number of cities in Africa has doubled and their cumulative population has increased by 500 million people , with one-third of Africa’s per capita GDP growth due to urbanisation .

But, the full potential of urbanisation is yet to be realised. Among the underlying causes holding back the potential of the continent are the high levels of traffic congestion and road traffic crashes that occur in the region which is also linked with the lack of affordable, safe and convenient public transport and proper footpaths and bike-lanes

As African cities grow and attract more people, there is an opportunity to shape them in more resource-efficient ways, that minimise travel and provide vibrant spaces for economic activities and social interaction, making them engines of social and economic development. This requires “a whole of society approach” led by the government but where business, civil society and academic institutions play crucial roles. Impactful “solutions” can be found in walking and cycling if put at the heart of policy and planning.

Safe and vibrant streets can solve many challenges that African cities currently face and their implementation is usually at lower cost than the alternatives. By reviewing experiences from various cities and putting in place processes that build on successes from within the region, such a “learning from doing” approach can help Africa to make urbanisation work for the benefit of its people and for the planet.

Intersection redesign in Quelimane Mozambique. 2022 UN-Habitat

Africa’s urban population has tripled in size in little more than two decades since 1990 and its cities will gain over 900 million new residents by 2050, making Africa the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world . While one third of per capita, GDP growth has been attributed to urbanisation, the informal sector accounts for more than 80 % of jobs in African cities.

The Covid 19 pandemic severely affected this sector decimating livelihoods of large sections of the population who have little or no support from social protection measures. In addition to putting in place social safety nets for the vulnerable, restoring and improving livelihoods for the large section of society who depend on informal sources of employment in cities should therefore be amongst the top priorities across the countries of the region. It is in this context that decent “urban mobility” should be seen as a key enabler for people to pursue livelihoods, access basic health and education services and engage in social interaction all contributing to building their resilience and capabilities particularly of those who are the most vulnerable.

People in Dar es Salaam crossing over to the BRT station. 2018. Julius Mwelu - UN-Habitat

Currently, Africa has the lowest emissions amongst the regions of the world. But emissions are rapidly increasing together with the growth in car ownership driven mainly by import of used vehicles from other regions . Transportation also is a large source of multiple pollutants and air pollution is now the second largest cause of death in Africa (1.1 million deaths in 2019 alone). In addition, road traffic crashes are a major cause of death and disability in the region. Globally, Africa accounts for 3% of registered vehicles but 20% of fatalities from road crashes. 261 pedestrians and 18 cyclists are killed in Africa every day. According to a World Bank report the total cost of fatalities and serious injuries in the region in 2016, amounted to $128 billion and 9% of GDP -the highest in the world . According to the WHO 2018 Global status report, only 11 African countries have design standards for pedestrians and cyclists.

In the region, people spend on an average nearly one hour on walking and cycling – not by choice but due to a lack of other options . Public transport is largely informally operated in African cities with fleets comprising so called “minibus taxis” known by various names in different countries e.g matatus in Kenya and dala dalas in Tanzania. These operate in an erratic manner in responding to travel demand, with operators competing for passengers on the road and generally provide a poor level of service associated with road safety challenges. However, for the majority of people, this may be the only “public transport” option available. Moreover, based on data analysed by UN-Habitat from 138 African cities, only around 32% of people living in these cities can access convenient public transport services within a distance of 500m/ 1000m (depending on carrier capacity).

A modern, efficient and safe multi-modal transport system, comprised of public transport accessible to people by a short and comfortable walk or bike ride should thus be a part of the vision of African cities to stem the huge drain on resources and boost their economies in addition to addressing the human tragedy and suffering caused by road traffic crashes.

Cycling fighting his way on Nairobi roads. 2020. UN-Habitat

A large majority of the African urban residents rely on walking and cycling, with data for many cities showing up to 50-70% of the transport trips. At the same time, the infrastructure for active mobility is often lacking or in poor condition, causing severe safety impacts for the urban population.

This alarming situation is often compounded by the lack of integrated transport and urban planning practices, resulting in a priority towards car-oriented transport policies and practices and outdated street design standards with little reference to “complete streets” in urban areas. It is against this background that UN-Habitat is coordinating the “Reclaiming Streets for Pedestrians and Cyclists in Africa” project funded by the United Nations Road Safety Fund, and implemented in collaboration with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). The project aims to significantly reduce road fatalities among the most vulnerable road users in the countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Guinea and Rwanda.

The project implements large-scale capacity building programmes on safe street designs, for instance in Kisumu, Kenya, where a Minecraft workshop (digital lego for urban design) was organized with local communities to identify their main proposals for better streets. These proposals were tested through a tactical urbanism intervention showcased at the Africities conference in 2022.

Safe Routes to School Campaign in Mombasa 2023. Vipul Patel

Through the provision of technical assistance, the “Reclaiming Streets” project also contributes to the implementation of pilot initiatives. Public spaces and footpaths that are better designed to safely accommodate rather than hinder street-vending and other such small businesses, can actually boost social activities, employment and potentially also land values. One pilot initiative supported by the “Reclaiming Streets” project is the Nairobi River Life Project, a joint initiative of the Kenyan Government, UN-Habitat and other partners. Under this initiative, opportunities are being developed for regenerating inner city neighbourhoods, supporting local economies, providing alternative connectivity through a network of green and public spaces and a safe network of walkways and bicycle paths, managing storm water, and creating water reservoirs and water parks.

Participatory Minecraft workshop on Street Designs. Kisumu 2022. UN-habitat

The “Reclaiming Streets” project furthermore assists countries in strengthening their national road safety frameworks for instance by emphasizing the need for safe walking and cycling in Mozambique’s National Road Safety Masterplan, or through its support to the development of Rwanda’s National Street Design Manual. Through regional dissemination of good practice, the project inspires countries across the continent to follow successful pathways towards safer mobility. Together with partners, the project contributed to the first Africa-wide convening for walking and cycling in Kigali, Rwanda.

The Forum addressed the long-standing issues with walking and cycling on the continent and initiated the drafting of regional action plans. Lastly, the project also strengthens the collaboration with development banks and financiers and offers support for in providing NMT audits to externally financed mobility projects.

As walking and cycling should be considered part of an integrated, multi-modal transport system, the project emphasizes the links with public transport in the context of transit-oriented development. Over the years, UN-Habitat has also assisted African cities in planning for modern public transport systems and provided expertise towards operational planning or corridor design in cities such Kampala, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kigali or Dar es Salaam.

Road Safety Campaign in Mozambique 2022. UN-Habitat

Safe and sustainable mobility is essential for economies to thrive in Africa. Improving accessibility and mobility for all is enabling more people, particularly women and those that were previously constrained by a variety of reasons, such as disabilities and poverty to participate in economic, social and cultural activities and access educational, health and other social services making cities more vibrant engines of economic growth and social development, while also restraining the growing emissions in the region.

The Reclaiming Streets project is significantly reducing road fatalities in its partner cities by implementing safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists. Through tactical urbanism interventions and technical assistance for street designs, the project results in safer infrastructure for vulnerable road users while encouraging design features that slow down the speed of motorized transport.

The project contributes to safer urban street designs under a complete streets approach, for instance in Rwanda at the Kinamba and Akabuga intersections, or in Ethiopia in 2 school areas in Addis Ababa. In collaboration with the local governments, the project assists during the implementation phase and will assess reductions in injuries/fatalities in a sample number of locations.

Cyclist in Mozambique. 2022. UN-Habitat

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