Kenya’s bike culture – and how it can survive development

If you’ve spent any time in East Africa, this bike will be familiar to you:

You will also know that they easily lend themselves to carrying sacks, crates, stacks of firewood, or passengers. Cargo platforms can be added front and back, making them very versatile machines. Like Ford’s Model T, they come ‘in any colour so long as it’s black’, but you can personalise them any way you like. A more comfortable seat is a good place to start. And if you’re buying one of the cheaper Chinese imports, you’ll probably need to replace half the parts with good quality secondhand ones straight away. The chain probably won’t survive the ride home.

Hang out in a Kenyan street and it won’t be long before you learn that while these bikes are obviously designed for grown men, there is more than one way to ride a bike.

This is the roadster, Dutch bicycle, or Black Mamba. It used to be common in Britain during the post-war period, but only hipsters ride them now. It’s still common in much of Asia and Africa, and so are the roadside workshops that service them.

The bike has been the first step into mobility for many millions of people. In a developing world context, acquiring a bike can be transformative – new opportunities for work open up, or for school, to visit family, or just to access a broader range of shops and services. Many of us have had a taste of this effect, if you cycled as a child and were allowed to go on bike rides. The distance you can go and be back in time for tea dramatically increases with a bike, and so does your personal freedom.

Of course, if you can learn to drive and get a car, that freedom multiplies even further. And that’s where Kenya’s cycling culture may be headed – after a bicycle, it’s natural to aspire to owning a motorbike, and then a car. That’s a pattern that has been repeated many times already. Everyone used to cycle in Britain, and now it’s a minority pursuit. Cycling collapsed in China in the 90s and 00s as car ownership boomed. As incomes rise, cycling starts to look like a second-class mode of transport. And besides, cars are good for GDP and governments around the world can be relied on to encourage them. Bikes, not so much.

This isn’t inevitable though. Countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark show that it’s entirely possible for a cycling culture to survive development. Many individual cities have preserved or re-introduced cycling. Cycling can become what one design agency calls Bike Culture 2.0, where it is safe, healthy, and a matter of choice rather than the only transport one can afford.

So the question I’m interested in is how places like Kenya can keep their vibrant cycling culture and not see it eroded by car culture.

For a start, making it safer to cycle would need to be a priority. Cycling in the city is particularly risky, where bikes have to share the same roads as cars and trucks. There’s a real need for cycle paths, bridges or dedicated traffic signals, and secure places to park bikes.

Car drivers want improved roads too of course, but many more people would benefit from investment in non-motorised transport. 9% of journeys in Kenya are by car, 42% by public transport, and and 49% on foot or bike. Spending on cycling infrastructure would be more democratic and inclusive than spending on roads, as only the richest can drive private cars. And of course it would be good for traffic congestion, air pollution, and carbon emissions, so everybody wins.

That needs policy and leadership. The city of Nairobi has a non-motorised transport policy, though it’s too early to tell how it’s working. Most of all it needs a political commitment to cycling. Too often it has worked the other way round – Kolkata had a problem with congestion a few years ago, and banned bikes in order to try and solve it. That’s a huge mistake. Beijing did the same thing in the 90s and then changed its mind, and is now trying to encourage cycling again after destroying it.

This is all rather difficult when the bike is seen as an inferior transport option for the poor, so perception is really important. How can Kenyan bike culture be a source of pride? Perhaps cycling champions would help, and I’d love to see the Kenyan Riders meet their ambitions to become the first Kenyan team in the Tour de France.

Bike sharing schemes may also have a role. There has been a lot of interest in bike schemes in China recently, with mixed results. There aren’t many in Africa, though there was a successful pilot project at Nairobi university last year. Students can hire bikes to ride between the university’s two campuses, and a full scale scheme launched recently. These sorts of schemes can extend access to bikes, often better ones than people can afford.

Naturally, cars are going to be part of the equation too. So are urban transport systems, light rail and so on. Keeping bike culture would in no way be settling for less – nobody would look at Copenhagen or Amsterdam and say that it was backward in its transport systems. Can places like Kenya evolve straight to Bike Culture 2.0?


  1. The bike culture wasn’t always there when in The Netherlands and Denmark. In the 1950s and 60s they were as car-centric as the UK but changed policies in the 1970s.

    I don’t think it is unreasonable that as people get richer they want to move away from something that signifies relative poverty towards something of more refinement. Cars are great. It’s far less effort, you arrive fresh and it’s much safer (from the driver’s point of view). The problem is everyone else’s cars.

    The lag between many people being rich enough to buy cars and there being so many that congestion and air pollution are a problem is cycling’s weak spot.

    You can’t just want a government to ignore the desire of its people for better personal transport. If possible you want to make cycling attractive. But more likely the most you can hope for is a government who can be persuaded to leave enough space for a cycling resurgence in the future. Perhaps if groups like Sustrans gave support to similar nascent groups in Kenya on how to mobilize opinion and lobby government that could make an impression. But expect it to get worse before it gets better.

    1. Of course, and it’s not for us in the developed world to tell anyone they should be satisfied with a bike. But there’s a real opportunity to avoid the mistakes that everyone else seems to be making, and incorporate bikes into the infrastructure right from the start. It’s a whole lot easier to build cycle paths when a new road is built than to try and fit them in afterwards.

      By learning from what China and India are doing right now, and the Dutch and Danish have already done, Kenya has an opportunity to be smarter than we were in how it builds a 21st century road network.

  2. Cycling needs suitable infrastructure. This means proper segregation from both powered vehicles and pedestrians, good alignments, widths, etc, and comprehensive networks.

    It also needs smooth and even road surfaces, otherwise cyclists are compelled to use either third-world dreadnoughts, or so-called mountain bikes, which are also clumsy, heavy and hard to push.

    Until the mid-1980s in Britain, it was practicable to use lightweight (11 kg and less) cycles with small section tyres (25 mm). These days, even a 1950s style roadster (14 kg) with 30 mm tyres would not survive the potholes, bumps and inspection covers above the tarmac which are prevalent on the roads.

    There was a sharp decline in maintenance standards in the early 1980s; following the hard winter of 1982, damage was not repaired promptly. This, combined with the increase in car traffic and declining standard of driving, prompted me to put my cycle aside.

    I brought it out again for a few months in 1998, but found that using the cycle routes involved long detours, almost doubling the walking distance, a problem compounded by one-way systems (this was in the middle of Brighton). Additional hazards were pedestrians and roller-skaters in the cycle lanes, and the poor standard of cycling generally, which made the whole thing too stressful.

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