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African Cities, Please Change the Narrative on Non Motorized Transit!

Non Motorized Transport means have gradually gained popularity in several of the world’s cities. In countries like the Netherlands, modes such as cycling are a way of life. In other cities such as Bogota, pedestrianization of streets has been promoted as a means of improving mobility and retail business.

The promotion of Non Motorized Transport in many parts of the world has been focused mainly on reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality and creating an environment for healthy livelihoods. The same narrative has been attempted in many developing cities but with little success.

It is not unlikely  that promotion of NMT in developing cities, like Nairobi or Kampala, would  assist in a similar manner in reducing congestion, improving air quality and encouraging active mobility. The difference, however, is the social-cultural dynamics of the people in these cities. Cultural and social characteristics form a very important part of urban planning and  should never be ignored when making policies or plans for any city.

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Most African cities have a vast majority of their populace  living in informal settlements (over 50% of Nairobi’s population lives in some of the over 200 informal settlements in the city).They form the bulk of consistent NMT users; walking or cycling to and from work on a daily basis. For these people, and for many others as well, creating interest in NMT would have to take a different approach.

Statistics indicate that 47% of Nairobians walk to work. Many observers state that the number could be much higher than that. The rest of the city uses NMT either as a means of accessing public transport (the paratransit matatu systems) or to and from their personal vehicles. Meanwhile, road accidents still claim pedestrians as the largest number of victims. Personal vehicles also continue to be viewed as status symbol items among citizens. Traditional non motorized means are still considered as reserved for those who cannot access alternatives.

Recent developments in some middle class areas of Nairobi have included the construction of cycle-lanes and pedestrian paths along some roads. However, usage has been limited and linkage to older and more popular road networks, informal settlements and public transit has not been incorporated.

With this kind of scenario, it is necessary to change the narrative from ‘replacing cars with bikes’ to something closer to ‘safer mobility for the majority’. Of this majority, it should be noted, a large number comprises of women and children from the informal settlements, as well as persons with disabilities who are often forgotten in most infrastructure projects.

The working class in Nairobi also form the voting majority. For legislators at the County Assembly level to understand why they should advocate for and encourage non-motorized transit, they have to identify its importance with regard to improved livelihoods for their electorate.  NMT therefore needs to be promoted from a rights-based perspective for the majority of the urban populace. This will also ensure that NMT is prioritized in the development of infrastructure projects on the continent.

Planning Pics

It can therefore be suggested that driving an NMT agenda as a ‘replacement for personal vehicles’ may not be the best approach to use in this part of the world.  In order to  exhibit a truly democratic citizen driven policy approach, it is important that the promotion of non-motorized transit should first target the majority users.

This could also influence urban policy makers who continue to view larger and wider roads as ‘symbols of development’.

How do you think we should discuss the NMT Agenda? Do you believe that African Cities are discussing the NMT Agenda from a human rights perspective?

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