Nairobi: Mass Cycling = Less Traffic

In my adult life, I have cycled on a public roadway a total number of (1) times. I will explain why later. I am hardly an expert when it comes to the design of the perfect bicycle, or helmet, or wheels. I know a little bit about what makes for a good bike seat, but almost nothing about what kind of brakes make for a better bike (Caliper brakes? Coasters? Roller brakes? Listen: Have that conversation with someone else. I just want to feel the wind in my hair). However, while I may not know much about the technical aspects of the bicycle, I am sure of one thing: we need to cycle more in Nairobi. And not just for fun, but for work as well. It might just help with our current traffic woes.

Where daily commuters are concerned, Pedestrians (for the purpose of this piece, I include both cyclists and walkers in the definition of this term) make up the majority in Nairobi. And yes, I just capitalised that word on purpose. Because we are important. We matter. We are not second-class citizens who need to get with the vehicle programme. More people walk and/or use public transportation than use personal vehicles, and it’s about time our planners and politicians woke up to that fact.

Blind spots exist where great city planning in Nairobi is concerned. What comes to mind is the now infamous photo of Evans Kidero walking from the CBD to Yaya Centre. It is a sad fact that often, people of privilege who are unfamiliar with the day-to-day lives of the less endowed are the ones who get the most say where matters of importance are concerned. Those who are used to driving and being driven around do not know the logistical nightmare of commuting by public means in the rainy season. They have little knowledge of the forethought required when buying shoes. They do not know the sheer willpower required to confront some of Nairobi’s sidewalks. Mr. Kidero’s case is a unique one. Had it not happened, he might never have bothered to make any changes to our roadways. We tend to worry only about the things that affect us directly.

Kidero caught up in traffic. Click on image for source.

EK might have had good intentions to improve the flow of things, so to speak, but he did not do enough. He simply could not – we have too long a way to go. It’s not impossible to get there, however. One way in which we can make strides toward a more livable city is through cycling. Denmark did it. And while their shift (or reshift, depending on how you look at it) toward mass cycling appears to have been somewhat easy considering their predisposition to the bicycle, it is not impossible for us to reimagine ways in which our city can be more inclusive for all commuters, cyclists included.

Nairobi has long been a segregated city. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of our roads. Little or no thought is given to people who do not own vehicles. We all know this; it is too evident to even warrant discussion. What we need right now are solutions. And I think I have one: Every carriage way that has more than one lane in each direction should have its extra lane dedicated to cyclists.

A protected bike lane in Manhattan that was once a lane for cars. Click on image for source.

The only way to know if this will work is to try it out. It might not only help with reducing traffic but also with making Nairobi’s non-drivers (who cycle) feel respected and included. One way to test this idea out is to roll it out in small doses. A cycle-to-work week every month, perhaps, complete with bicycle maps. This would show whether an actual ‘market’ for the idea exists. I know a number of people who would gladly opt for cycling over driving – if only the infrastructure existed.  Giving one lane over to cyclists (zero motorised use: No cars, no bodas), and monitoring the response city-wide, is an easy way to determine the direction of transportation planning efforts.

The challenges with this idea?

  1. Matatus
  2. The possibility that it might increase traffic
  3. The cycling transition from older, narrow roadways to these wider, dedicated pathways

Matatus are both a help and a hindrance. On the latter: there have been several instances of matatus jumping the kerb or driving on the sidewalk in attempts to exceed their daily monetary targets. Not only is this a danger to pedestrians, but to cyclists as well. High kerbs (we’re talking ‘great wall of Limuru’ types) can be installed on the line separating cyclists from motorists. In the initial testing phase, these can be sand-filled plastic drums with reflective paint on the outside.

As for the idea that reducing each highway by a single lane might lead to more traffic, the result may go one of two ways: yes, it might cause a snarl-up in the remaining lanes, and no, it might not. If it does lead to traffic, then hey, what else is new? Traffic is something we are used to in Nairobi. I am of the opinion that it will actually ease traffic as well as save time and money (something that actually happened in New York). I’m betting on the possibility that there is a great number of Nairobians who are eager to cycle. If we build it facilitate it, they will come.

More Nairobians would cycle if the infrastructure existed. Click on image for source.

The third is somewhat difficult. Many of Nairobi’s back roads are too narrow for sidewalks, let alone bike lanes. Drivers would need to learn share the road, and cyclists would need to follow road rules and be extra cautious. Back to why I have only every cycled once in my adult life: motorists have little to no respect for cyclists, and the roadways do not always accommodate us. Still, there are brave ones who hop onto their bikes every day, and I salute them.

One more thing on the challenges facing this proposal: It can be argued that Nairobi is becoming more inclusive transportation-wise with the construction of the new Japanese-funded roadways, which are built to include both pedestrian and cycle paths. The problem with these is that in some cases I have witnessed, walkers outnumber cyclists, and many sidewalks are simply not wide enough for both (Ring Road Kileleshwa near Riverside Drive during rush hour, for instance). In others, bodas simply take over. In yet others, taxi drivers use them as parking spots (opposite Yaya centre). Some only have these narrow pedestrian/cycle paths on only one side of the road, which is baffling. Additionally, because these new roads are not city-wide, many cyclists have problems navigating the transition from cycle lanes to nothingness when they move from newer roads to older ones. Clearly, change is needed.

But can we make the change? Can mass cycling become commonplace in Nairobi? I believe so. Denmark did it. More recently, New York has done it, and with seeming great success. We can do it too. We need not suffer through evolving the slow way as a city when we have so many best-practice examples to go by. We also need not build new cycle roads when we can simply dedicate a portion of our wider ones to cyclists.

That’s my two cents. Pedal on.

*Featured image sourced here.

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