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Reinventing the Wheel: Cycling as a Sustainable Mode of Mobility in Africa

Cycling mobility is widely recognized as a healthy, cheap, green, and efficient mode of mobility. Cities around the world have come to realize that urban cycling is a mobility solution that provides an answer to their many challenges from air and noise pollution, public health problems, traffic congestion and the affordability of access to work and education. Yet, even if many of these challenges are growing at an alarming rate in African cities – especially with the rapid trend of urbanization and the urban sprawl – it seems that they are not catching up with the cycling movement. On the contrary, many of our cities are adopting car-centric planning as a way to express modernity and development. So how can we get more people on bikes in African cities?

Of course, the answer is not simple; every city has a different experience and can adopt a different entry point to the topic. Yet, cycling is often seen as a mode of mobility of the poor, and sometimes not perceived as a mode of mobility at all but rather as a sport or a recreational activity. Streets that are not designed for cycling mobility can make the cycling commute a life-threatening experience. However, this was not always the case. In some countries, like South Africa, Egypt or Eritrea, cycling has a long history from the beginning of the 20th century or even earlier.

We initiated the SDG lab Re-inventing the wheel: cycling as a mode of mobility in Africa to revive the recognition of cycling as a mode of mobility and to draw an image of an African city where cycling is an integrated part of its streets.

Students with their bikes in front of the French School in Alexandria, Egypt 1920s. Unknown photograher, Mission LaÏque française.

In Egypt, cycling activism started in 2006 with groups of young Egyptians organizing weekend rides and regular cycling events. This created a growing popularity for cycling among youth, especially highly-educated urban youth from middle and upper-middle income classes. In addition, a cycling tradition still thrives in lower-income neighborhoods as an affordable mode of mobility where bicycles are seen as an every-day tool. But despite the growing cycling activism and the governmental constant calls for more cycling, the movement has achieved very little in terms of spatial planning and urban design. There is hardly any awareness of cycling urbanism among the decision makers, urban planners, and designers or even the cycling community. Moreover, the lack of knowledge about cycling behavior (i.e. speed, distances, required protection, etc.) has led to poor design for the few cycling lanes that have been built in the country.

Accordingly, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) and Tabdeel initiative teamed up and proposed a project idea as an attempt to stimulate a dialogue and create the conditions for growing an inclusive cycling culture in Egypt. Our particular focus is to show and encourage the creation of cycling infrastructure in Alexandria. The planning impact that can emerge out of this project is an equitable and efficient cycling facility that can function for more bike users. Thus, the long-term goal is, via cultural change and increased acceptance of alternative mobility, to be able to narrow the gap between the current planning and policy-making and the immense potential for cycling mobility and infrastructure.

The project idea was to design a cycling lane on the Corniche, one of the major arterial roads in Alexandria. Then through virtual reality (VR), we gave citizens the chance to experience the feeling of riding a bicycle on the Corniche next to cars and public transportation in an immersive digital environment. The user rides a fixed bicycle and through the VR equipment s/he can feel like s/he is actually riding the bicycle in real life.

We started by compiling a team with diverse backgrounds that included architects, IT engineers, governmental administrators, academics, and cycling activists. Simultaneously, the work started by developing a 3D model for part of the Corniche by engaging more than 12 trainees from universities.

Through a workshop call that attracted more than 150 applicants, 20 were selected for participation. Using design-thinking methodology, we designed the cycling lane according to the international standards while considering local culture, limitations and barriers.

Through the funds provided by Future Earth, we also managed to buy the VR needed equipment and a bicycle. After finishing the 3D model and designing the cycling lane, the lane was presented at a public seminar where we received very positive reactions.

We proceeded with the VR experience exhibition. The exhibition attracted more than 100 visitors in the first day, who participated in the VR experience, a public survey, and route planning. Almost 90 percent of those who took the survey said that they would use the bicycle as a mode of mobility if suitable infrastructure was available. More than 90 percent of those same people said they do not use a bicycle regularly in their current situation.

The event attracted local and national media and it went viral on local social media. Consequently, the workshop participants and Tabdeel team formed a community of advocates for cycling urbanism with a social media presence that attracted over 2,000 supporters on Facebook. Following the workshop, the community was engaged in a number of cycling advocacy events around the country.

To sustain the project’s idea, the BA is planning to install the cycling VR experience permanently at the BA’s Exploratorium. This is to give the opportunity for as many children and adults as possible to experience the VR model of riding a bicycle on the Corniche in Alexandria, which stimulates the need for using bicycles as a mean of sustainable transportation.

Dr. Mohamed Mehaina

Deputy Director, Alex Med Research Center, Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Heba Attia

Architect; Founder, Tabdeel Initiative

SDG Labs Africa

A current focus of Future Earth is on Africa, where several regional offices, centers and national organizations have recently been established. To strengthen these networks, we co-led a conference in South Africa in May 2018, Seedbeds of Transformation. It provided a space for people with diverse perspectives to explore transformations and identify pathways for achieving the sustainable development goals in Africa. The conference brought together researchers with government officials, media, NGOs, and innovators.

In connection to the conference, we launched an SDG Labs Africa challenge through a competitive call for initiatives to solve sustainability issues on the local level. The SDG Labs are based on the concept social innovation lab, where researchers work with local entrepreneurs, officials, and holders of traditional knowledge to solve sustainability challenges hands-on. The topics connect to sustainable oceans and coasts, urban sustainability, or digital technology, and the ideas should be applicable to other places and scales, to accelerate positive change. Each project received a modest sum of funding, provided by Future Earth and Sida/Swedbio.

During the autumn we will present the results from some of the labs in a series of blogs. This is the second blog in this series.