Urban transport in Africa is chaotic and only getting worse by the year – degrading infrastructure, growing megalopolis and rising energy costs are not helping. I traveled in quite a few African countries and I had the dubious privilege of using public transportation such as the legendary minibuses which are a mandatory part of the African experience. At home in Paris, I mostly ride my bike. I always wonder why bike transportation is not more developed in Africa : it would be practical, sustainable and consistent with the local standard of living while extending business opportunities and access to goods and services – all while using few imported goods and mostly local workforce.

At first glance the bicycle seems ideal transportation for many in Africa cities: most are flat, trip distances are short and money for private motor vehicles and public transit systems is scarce. But generally bicycles are underutilized in Africa” writes David Mozer in “The Bicyclist’s Dilemma In African Cities”. He notes that “a survey of literature by Africa writers indicates that bicycles were a prominent mode of transport during the first half of the twentieth century. But for reasons that are not totally clear the bicycle and bicyclist don’t fare well in the contemporary Africa city. [..] Bicycles are used less in most African urban centers than in many European and North American cities. Africans show a substitution directly between walking and motor transport as income increases“.

The difference with Asia is striking. Ten years ago, at the UNCHS (Habitat) Regional Symposium on Urban Poverty in Asia, A. Rahman Paul Barter noted many differences between bicycle use in Asia and Africa : ” In most Asian cities, bicycles are within reach of many poor households and have been widely used for the last several decades (Replogle, 1992). In Asia, unlike most African and Latin American cities, bicycles are affordable even to many of those for whom public transport is not affordable (Godard, 1997; Howe and Dennis, 1993; Tiwari and Saraf, 1996)“.

The difference may have a lot to do with the presence of a deliberate industrial development policy geared towards the building of a sustainable local cycling manufacture and maintenance industry : the UNCHS paper goes on : “Several Asian countries have successfully pursued policies in the post -World War Two era which enabled a local bicycle manufacturing industry to flourish and for large numbers of affordable bicycles to be available on the local market. The main low-income examples is China but bicycle manufacturing is also significant in India and Pakistan, while earlier Japan and Taiwan also developed very large bicycle industries (Replogle, 1992). In China before 1979 bicycle ownership and production remained something of a privilege but with market reforms bicycle ownership rose steeply (Hook and Replogle, 1996). China has also long provided direct government and employer-based subsidies to workers for the purchase of bicycles (Replogle, 1992). India and China have also managed to become large exporters of bicycles. The lack of a significant domestic bicycle industry and high tariffs on imports in Bangladesh contributes to bicycles being beyond the reach of the poor in Dhaka (Gallagher, 1992). There are some examples of successful credit schemes for the purchase of non-motorised vehicles by low-income people in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (World Bank, 1996)“.

Why African governments have disregarded the opportunity to develop a home grown light industry consistent with local manpower, local competence, local needs and ressources is a nagging question, especially since such light industry can be the seeds of an economic biotope within which more sophisticated industries can develop in a grassroots fashion.

But practical obstacles and hostile individual attitudes toward cycling are also to blame, most of them catalogued in Rahman Paul Barter’s paper. I had the opportunity to interview locals about them. The objections related to security and afford ability are easily invalidated by the fact that in many African countries light motorcycles are overwhelmingly the popular way to provide individual transportation as soon as it is within economic reach, as anyone who has ridden among the hordes of mopeds can testify.

So what remains is prejudice against human powered vehicles in general and bicycles in particular as a serious mean of transportation. As I have heard from potential users in Africa, riding a bicycle is not recognized as a dignified mean of transportation. Physical exertion being shunned, the bicycle being seen as a child toy unworthy of an adult, cycling being incompatible with the socially accepted role of women… The objections I witnessed in Africa are strangely similar to the ones I hear in Paris. And apparently they are the same elsewhere in the world. A lot of communication work remains to be done everywhere in the world so that cycling becomes a serious choice for transportation. It is sad that even where it makes the most sense and delivers the most positive externalities, cycling still needs propaganda to convince transportation users.

Of course, cycling is not a universal solution. But it is a valid tool which is currently underrepresented in the transportation mix, especially in poor countries where in many situations where it is economically and practically optimal, it is neglected for irrational reasons. I hope that African entrepreneurs will see the opportunity along with micro-credit institutions and ambitious politicians who can foster awareness initiatives.