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?