by Tu My Tran – Senior Officer, Sustainable Mobility
All trips begin or end with walking. In many cities around the world, congestion and pollution have reached a tipping point; space is limited and the use of private cars is no longer efficient. Despite this, most mobility-related investments still focus on new roads and highways that cater to motorized transport rather than walking and cycling infrastructure which requires less space and is more cost effective.
Many African cities in particular experience increasing congestion that could be avoided by prioritizing investments to make walking, cycling, and public transport more convenient and reliable. The first-ever African Mobility Month, a campaign which ran from 20 September to 20 October 2019, amplified the stories of many initiatives that promote walking and cycling as clean and healthy modes of transport, while building the case to invest in walking and cycling by showing public demand for safe infrastructure.
In many African cities, over a third of citizens move between their daily activities on foot or by bicycle. However, they face extreme risks in doing so as they often have to share the road with fast-moving trucks and cars. In many African cities, cars are seen as aspirational and people who walk or cycle are often looked down upon instead of being recognized as valuable and sustainable road users.
The African Mobility Month campaign aims to raise the status of clean, healthy and affordable modes of transport like walking and cycling and elevate these forms of transport to be a part of a desirable urban lifestyle in African cities.
This new narrative is being promoted by African events and initiatives through which roads are closed to cars and become safe public spaces for people. By experiencing what it is like to walk or cycle safely through streets without competition from vehicles, people can enjoy and envision a different use for their city’s streets. Car-free days are also an opportunity to raise awareness on air pollution, engage communities, and promote active mobility and healthy lifestyles. In Addis Ababa, Menged Le Sew (“streets for people”) has taken place every last Sunday of the month since December 2018. Having overcome initial resistance from motorists and small business owners, the initiative is gaining popularity, and it is succeeding in providing access to sports, making people reimagine their streets, and providing a space to create healthier habits. As a government scheme, Menged Le Sew takes place in up to 20 cities across Ethiopia, and people have started to demand weekly events in Addis Ababa.
Car-free initiatives such as car-free days do more than unlocking the imagination. They bridge social and spatial divisions within the city and beyond it. Open Streets Cape Town, the first formal Open Streets program in Africa, aims to bring people together to create a more equitable, integrated, vibrant and safer Cape Town and counts on the partnership with the local administration. This citizen-led initiative has organized Open Streets events across Cape Town and inspired many more across Africa, including Abuja (Nigeria), Windhoek (Namibia), and Kampala (Uganda).
Transforming city streets to be safer for cyclists is the goal of Critical Mass Movements and Bike Buses, where organized groups of cyclists claim their right-of-way by cutting through streets clogged with traffic. Such initiatives usually start quite small, but through regular actions and good communications, they garner greater participation. Critical Mass Nairobi started with just seven cyclists and nowadays gathers hundreds of enthusiasts, while Cape Town Moonlight Critical Mass gained popularity by organizing night rides through city streets every full moon. By riding their bikes, these grassroots movements generate more support for cycling as a daily way to move in cities while campaigning on social media for adequate cycling infrastructure and greater respect from motorists.
Another practical way to encourage cycling in cities is to provide spaces where city dwellers can bring bicycles to fix and upgrade. In December, Kasi Cyclists Club in the City of Tshwane, South Africa, opened a Bicycle Repair Shop using a converted shipping container. Apart from being a workshop, and providing abundant repair tools and equipment, the Centre also functions as a central space for local cyclists to meet, engage, learn, and have their bicycles repaired and maintained. The vision for the Centre is that it will strive to promote and enhance the cycling culture in the area, advocating for cycling as a fun, healthy and affordable means of non-motorized transport.
Large cities are not alone in seeking change. As congestion increasingly affects urban areas of all sizes, promoting walking and cycling as a healthy and clean alternative becomes increasingly attractive for forward-thinking smaller towns and cities in Africa. Ugandan cities Jinja and Entebbe are taking steps towards promoting walking and cycling following their introduction to ecomobility by ICLEI. Entebbe hosted the first annual “Bike Up Uganda” event to promote cycling and tourism in the city, while Jinja’s Mayor Batambuze guided a group of dignitaries on bicycles. In a continent where status is associated with expensive vehicles, getting Mayors and local chiefs out of their vehicles and onto bicycles is a powerful tool to change perception, especially for organizations and municipalities with limited resources.
Organized by ICLEI in collaboration with UN-Habitat, UN Environment, ITDP, GIZ, Open Streets Cape Town and Critical Mass Nairobi, African Mobility Month connected existing activities that support walking and cycling across the continent for one month using the #AfricanMobilityMonth hashtag, and demonstrated the magnitude of citizen support for active mobility in African cities.
A previous version of this blog was originally published on ecomobility.org.