It is well known that cycling is great exercise and a healthy pursuit. But also, using a bicycle to commute instead of a car, motorbike or public transport is a way to lower one’s carbon footprint and reduce noise in populated areas. It also allows for greater autonomy when moving around cities and takes pressure off infrastructure and roads, lowering the costs associated with transport. Considering all these factors, bicycles are one of the best options for getting around cities.
Most African cities, with little in the way of cycling infrastructure, can seem like real urban jungles when it comes to venturing onto the streets with a bicycle. And there remain attitudes that perceive cycling as a symbol of poverty. But things are changing in some urban centers and it is undeniable that in a few African cities there appears to have been a bicycle boom.
In Nairobi, for instance, Wheels Of Africa has been working to create awareness about cycling since 2008 and bloggers like Velma Kiome have brought to light all sorts of stories about cycling in the East African city. Also, it is reported that in Lagos there are more bike shops than ever, showing how Lagosians are getting more interested by cycling.
There is one African city that is making headway in being suited for cyclists and can perhaps offer guidance to the rest. According to an article recently published at the website Cities Journal, Cape Town is among the fifteen most bike-friendly cities in the world — although it still has a long way to go compared to its European and American counterparts on the same list.
In the Mother City, cycling is an urban lifestyle and a healthy fashion that seduces more people daily. And to encourage the creation of social groups that define the trend, Bicycle Cape Town has created a community of urban pedallers willing to transform the city. And, as can be imagined, they are not alone in this journey.
Another Cape Town organization, the citizen-driven initiative Open Streets, is working to change how streets are used, perceived and experienced in Cape Town. Open Streets focuses in particular on those who tend to be excluded from motorised streets, including children, the elderly, cyclists, walkers and skateboarders.
A snapshot of Open Streets in Cape. via Open Streets.
“We were inspired by Bogota’s Ciclovia where 120 km of city streets become space for people to ride a bike. Our program seeks to create something similar but not just for bikes but for people to take ownership of these spaces”, says Marcela Guerrero Casas, founder and director of Open Streets.
Despite the dangers of cycling in Cape Town (a cyclist was recently knocked over by a motorists in a hit-and-run incident) Casas states that “there is great success and popularity in sporting circles though cycling as transportation is rare. In recent years, different initiatives such as Moonligh Mass have emerged helping to generate more interest and support for urban biking. But we still lack much in terms of infrastructure and above all respect.”
For its part, the city government has published a smart cycling guide to promote good urban cycling practice and safer co-existence between cyclists and motorists.
The popularity of bicycling has extended easily to other South African cities: the Streets Alive program is running in Johannesburg. “Through the Streets Alive concept, we’re changing the way our people access infrastructure through various ways such as complete streets, open streets, adhering to transport values and law enforcement,” states the Johannesburg Road Agency’s Operations Manager, Sipho Nhlapo on the city’s official website.
Casas says bureaucratic difficulties make it hard to extend initiatives like Open Streets to other African cities. “It is important to show that the concept works but at the end of the day the important thing is to work with the groups that already exist, and also with some new initiatives to come in Nairobi, Namibia and Lagos,” she says.
Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.
Read older posts from this section