Statistics have shown that cycling worldwide has been booming during the COVID-19 pandemic, with populations taking to traditional bikes and e-bikes as a healthy activity and means of transport while respecting social distancing measures in place.
But what of Africa?
Most countries on the continent have introduced strict physical distancing and hygiene measures, and some have suspended public transport entirely, while others have reduced its occupancy and frequency. As the World Resources Institute (WRI) points out, this is particularly problematic in a region where the majority of the population depends on a daily income to survive.
In an article focusing on the problem in Africa, WRI experts Iman Abubaker and Anna Oursler, along with sustainable mobility consultant Janene Tuniz, reveal that in Zimbabwe, a lack of capacity to screen people using public transport meant that over a certain period only doctors with private vehicles were reporting for duty. In Malawi, Uganda and Kenya, bus and minibus taxi operators increased fares after the government imposed passenger limits.
But as the authors point out: “Many African cities lack the necessary physical environment to accommodate quick surges in cycling that have been seen in other cities. Poor urban planning has a major impact on the ability of significant populations to access basic services even during the best of times.”
The authors hold up Uganda as an example to Africa when it comes to trying to anticipate the COVID-19 peak by putting measures in place before the pandemic reaches the continent in full force.
In late March, during his fourth address to the nation, President Yoweri Museveni said that it was healthier to use a bicycle than public transport. During COVID-19 lockdowns, reduced traffic and increased political support led to a rise in the number of bicycle riders across the country, especially among female riders, as well as a boom in business for bicycle dealers and mechanics.
The country already has a Walking and Cycling Policy, and WRI and the United Nations Environment Programme are among a growing coalition of organisations in Uganda that support the development of the first non-motorised transport zone and other safe cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in the capital, Kampala. This includes the remodeling of a 2km stretch of road – home to shopping malls, offices and theatres – that until recently was a main artery for cars. This Non-Motorised Transport Pilot Corridor is part of a wider strategy to reduce congestion in Kampala.
In addition, city authorities have used the lockdown period to improve infrastructure, filling potholes, registering public transport vehicles and upgrading stormwater drainage. And during this time cycling has proven to be an efficient, affordable and convenient mobility option for residents.
The authors point out: “Governments throughout the region can learn from Uganda’s experience, and begin addressing mobility challenges in a way that promotes sustainable and safe mobility systems, both in the short term, adapting to COVID-19, and in the long term, working towards sustainable cities.”
This can be achieved by providing dedicated, high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure, by ensuring bicycles are more affordable and accessible (eg tax-free importation of bicycles and parts, partnerships with local and international institutions – for example the Turkish government donated 100 bicycles to health care workers in Uganda) and planning to improve access to basic services.
“The need to design cities so that core services are accessible for people who walk and bicycle is perhaps clearer now than ever, but it’s also needed to decongest cities and make public transport more accessible generally,” write Abubaker, Tuniz and Oursler.
“COVID-19 has revealed that sometimes it isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel. Commitment to walking and cycling is not the most technologically advanced solution to the challenges many African cities face. But it is certainly among the most effective. Support for change now could blunt the accelerating spread of COVID-19, give cities more options to adapt in the future and help put African cities on track for a more equitable and sustainable future overall.”
Photo © Kikomeko Jackson: Cyclists in Kampala, Uganda, during COVID-19 lockdowns.