Bike Sharing Arrives In Africa, Where Bike Infrastructure Is Almost Nonexistent

By Dana Sanchez Published: November 15, 2016, 1:52 pm
Bike sharingA cyclist en route to work from Diepsloot near Johannesburg. Photo: The Guardian.

Africa, which has historical barriers to bike use and limited bike infrastructure in many cities, just got its first bike share program, Smithsonian reported.

Located in Marrakech, Medina Bike rents out 300 bikes at 10 rental stations starting at $5 a day. The program is headed by the United Nations, which is hosting a conference in Marrakech on climate change that will determine how countries will cut fossil fuel use if they sign on to the Paris Agreement.

The COP 22 is underway Nov. 7-18. That’s the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The goal? Reduce greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

The bikes will stay in Marrakech after the conference is over. The program could become a pilot for future bike-share projects in other African cities.

Lack of bike-specific infrastructure means there are safety hazards for bike riders all over Africa.

The human, economic and environmental benefits of bike riding are proven. They include a great workout, cheap transportation and no pollution. Emissions from transportation increased nearly 54 percent between 1990 and 2010 in Africa, according to the U.N. Environment Program, Smithsonian reported.

Bike lanes are a political target in South Africa

In Johannesburg, the city’s poorest residents spend more than 20 percent of their income getting to and from work, according to a Statistics South Africa survey, Washington Post reported.

Martin Mathe heads the Diepsloot Cycle Group of about 300 bicycle commuters. He bikes 20 miles a day from his home in the black township of Diepsloot north of Johannesburg to a wealthy suburb 10 miles away where he works as a gardener.

He has seen five of his friends killed on the road in the past 15 years. So when he heard that Johannesburg’s new mayor had vowed in his inaugural address to stop construction of bike lanes throughout the city, he was disappointed.

The new Democratic Alliance mayor, businessman Herman Mashaba, said that the project’s cost was unjustified when hundreds of thousands of city residents can’t get basic services like water and sewer.

Former ANC Mayor Parks Tau, replaced in August by Mashaba following municipal elections, had ambitious plans to promote bike lanes, The Guardian reported. Infrastructure director Ntuli said Johannesburg wanted “to become Africa’s first cycle friendly megacity.”

Biking is a way around one of the biggest financial drains faced by the poor — transportation, Mathe said, according to Washington Post. “We ride bikes because there’s no money for anything else.”

Bike lanes started showing up about three years ago in Johannesburg along with bigger transportation projects such as a bus rapid-transit system, high-speed commuter train and new sidewalks.

They were meant to be part of a solution to segregationist city planning legacy of apartheid that sliced up the city, Washington Post reported:

There was just one problem with the new bike lanes: No one seemed to know what to do with them. Minibus taxis used them as turn lanes and cars parked in them.

The designers and promoters of the bike lanes see them as an attempt to use transportation to right history’s wrongs and stitch together a divided city. The primary beneficiaries they envisioned were the city’s poor — people such as Mathe.

“This is not a political question,” said Ismail Vadi, who runs the provincial transportation department. “It’s about how we create sustainable, livable cities before it’s too late.”

Dying to get to work

Pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists represent half of the 1.3 million people killed worldwide in traffic accidents each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

The UNEP calls for countries to use at least 20 percent of their transportation budgets for bike lanes and safe sidewalks to encourage walking and biking instead of driving, Grist reported.

In countries with weaker economies, life is especially dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Malawi, Kenya, and South Africa are among the most dangerous, according to the report:

Governments simply have less money to spend on the type of shiny, protected bike lanes you see popping up in Portland, Washington, D.C., and in bike-friendly cities across Europe.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2017 budget is $98.1 billion. Malawi’s total 2016-2017 budget is about $1.65 billion.

Bikes are  a topic of conversation at the COP22 in Morocco including adaptation and how to pay for it, Grist reported.

Cycling as a status symbol

Cycling is a status symbol associated with poverty or wealth in South Africa, according to The Guardian. Most of the Diepsloot cyclists are not South African by birth but immigrants from Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia or Zimbabwe, who brought bike culture from their countries.

“Johannesburg, like the rest of South Africa, is a very aspirational place,” said Njogu Morgan, a Ph.D. student at the University of the Witwatersrand who studies the city’s cycling culture. “As soon as people can afford it they want to travel by car … and in poorer communities there are very few people interested in cycling.”

In Soweto, a group of entrepreneurs is working to make cycling cool for young black people, especially women who are rarely seen on bikes.

Cycling was seen either as an elitist sport for whites or as a humble mode of transport for those too poor to afford a car, said Hussain Roos.

It’s still very hard to walk anywhere in Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile. Pavements are often non-existent and drivers are unsympathetic to people on bikes. It can feel like a hostile environment if you’re not inside a car. The only walkers are people who can’t afford to get around any other way, The Guardian reported.

The Diepsloot cyclists are not the norm in Johannesburg, where just one in every 500 trips is made by bike.

 

 

 

 

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