Why we must Cycle our way to Sustainable Cities!

“My two favorite things in life are libraries and bicycles. They both move people forward without wasting anything” ~ Peter Golkin

 Away from the most obvious benefits; keeping you fit, reduction in congestion and traffic jams, convenience, affordability, recreation and enjoying the simple pleasures, the humble bicycle has potential of greatly reducing carbon dioxide emission especially from urban transportation. Whereas not all journeys can be made by a bike especially long ones and those that involve haulage of heavy goods, a lot could be achieved involving the movement of people.

fullsizerender-2The writer cycling to the Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden. Jan, 2017.

In many cities around the world, the distances traveled are short but rather numerous. In the EU for example, half of the car trips are less than 3 miles, a distance that could be cycled in just 20 minutes. And whereas distance to work is getting longer  globally, cycling for one hour to and from work is something that even an elderly person can comfortably do, and in turn enjoy the accrued healthy benefits.

More than half of the global population today (3.8 billion or 54%) lives in cities and is projected to reach 6.3 billion or 66% by 2050 – UN. In Africa, urban population is growing exponentially and is projected to reach 50% by 2030. Nigeria alone has over 80 million people living in urban areas. These urban residents unlike their rural counterparts are always on the move!

My home city of Kampala and its neighboring suburbs already boast of over 5 million permanent residents, and has been ranked the 13th fastest growing city in the world with an annual population growth rate of 4.03 per cent. And even with unplanned developments and increasing traffic, Mercer, a respected global consulting firm based in New York, ranked Kampala the best city to live in East Africa and continue to harness the evident goodwill as one of the safest and city with the friendliest people on the African continent

This rapid urban growth is true across Africa and other developing regions and is already a reality in the rest of the world. So how will these people keep on the move sustainably without turning cities into pollution factories of carbon dioxide emissions and into dreaded congested places?

In 2016, global CO2 emissions reached all time highs at 38.2 billion tons, a year earlier in 2015, the amount was equally staggering at 36 billion tons according to the International Energy Agency. And that’s alarming. You might also need to be reminded that 2016 has been the hottest year in recorded history with each subsequent month setting a new record. The trend doesn’t look like it will backdown soon.Unless we act differently with urgency!

Please note that Green House Gases (GHGs) are not supposed to be disastrous; in fact, they are the only reason to our survival on our blue planet, providing a blanket that prevents us from being scotched by the sun and preventing heat from escaping so we keep warm enough. But the atmosphere was designed with just the right amounts of these gases to do the job right, by continuously adding more GHGs into the atmosphere; we are creating a thicker blanket that is now beginning to suffocate us.

Transportation stands out as one of the key culprits for the extra unnecessary GHGs into the atmosphere. Global CO2 emissions from transportation stand at 14 per cent, only beaten by energy production, agriculture, and industries at 25%, 24% and 21% respectively. Other energy sources and buildings share 10% and 6% respectively according to EPA. In some countries like the U.S for example, the emissions from transportation are as high as 26% and nearly a quarter in the EU and the main source of pollution in the cities.

In Africa, transportation contributes 24 per cent  of all GHG emissions, only second to energy production. It is worth noting also that road transport in Africa accounts for over 93 per cent of total transport emissions and like in all other parts of the world, transport sector is the least diversified with 93 per cent of all transport energy coming from oil-based fuels, making it one of the dirtiest industries.

It is important to note also that transportation has a further indirect negative ripple effect on the emissions from other sectors. A very good case in point is manufacturing of automobiles.

Emissions from all these sectors are already humongous and require every sector to innovate and apply novel strategies to make substantial reductions.

For transportation, one of the rather simple things to do is cycling. The modest locomotive that dates back two centuries has the potential of cutting down emissions especially from urban transportation.

fullsizerender-5Studies have shown that riding a bicycle everyday makes you more awesome than the general population!

A 2015 study conducted by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy: A Global High Shift Cycling Scenario, indicates that a dramatic increase in cycling could save society US$24 trillion cumulatively between 2015 and 2050, and cut CO2 emissions from urban passenger transport by nearly 11 percent by 2050 compared to a High Shift scenario without a strong cycling emphasis.

But for this cycling potential to be harnessed, cities, small town boards and individuals alike must get involved, and put in place long-term sustainable mobility plans. Away from changing people’s mindsets toward cycling, cities and town boards must put in place proper cycling infrastructure that ensures road safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

In my home city of Kampala – Africa’s Capital of Happiness – cycling would be a great way of reducing the annoying traffic jam and get people conveniently to their destinations on top of cutting down pollutant fumes from the many used old cars imported from Japan. But the infrastructure for cycling is not in place. Today, it takes a few ‘crazy’ individuals who are committed to the idea of sustainable mobility to go cycling on the streets of Kampala amidst unbearable competition from vehicles, motorcycles (Boda Boda) and pedestrians alike.


Amanda Ngabirano, a cycling champion and advocate, and another cyclist riding on the streets of Kampala amidst competition on the same lane with motorists. (Photo Credit, Amanda Ngabirano).

There are already countries with cities that boast of successful models and rich cycling pedigree that Africa and the rest of the world could look up to. The Netherlands and Denmark for example have already demonstrated enviable urban cycling leadership. These two urban cycling leaders are inspiring smaller cities across Europe to move in the right direction. The southern Swedish City of Malmo, for example, has looked west across the harbor to Copenhagen for inspiration and has been investing steadily in cycling infrastructure like uniform bicycle lanes and parking facilities to become Sweden’s most friendly cycling city.

Street Bicycle Parking and a bicycle lane in the City of Malmo, Sweden
Car-free Street in Malmo, Sweden: Only Cyclists and Pedestrians. Such initiatives attract more cyclists in cities!

Kampala and other cities across Africa could humble themselves and look north for similar inspiration. It could start with a few streets cordoned off as car-free zones and investing in basic cycling infrastructure like bicycle lanes and parking yards in particular zones as pilots. This would get the young bustling population jumping on a bike and make the cities realize the numerous accrued benefits, greatly reducing city congestion and cutting down dirty emissions from old vehicles, which seem to be the only option for young professionals and a growing middle class.

Mayors and city authorities always look forward to investing in huge projects; bridges, flyovers, more kilometers of paved roads, etc. which is all good; but they forget the little, simple and much cheaper projects like cycling infrastructure that would make so much positive impact and have potential of cultivating more lively, cohesive and sustainable cities and would greatly contribute to solving bigger problems like climate change.

Until we go back to cherishing the old ingenious inventions from antiquity like the unpretentious bike, the monstrous SUVs could be leading us in the direction of catastrophe.

“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy a bike and that’s pretty close” ~ Unknown



Rushongoka Wa-Mpiira is a cycling enthusiast living in Kampala, Uganda, and he’s interested in shaping sustainable urban development ideas in Africa. This piece was written in the City of Malmo, Sweden. 

 Email: rwampiira@gmail.com


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