NAIROBI: Cyclists take part in the monthly Critical Mass Nairobi (CMS) group-bike ride around the capital city whose two objectives are getting more people commuting on bicycles, partly as a counter measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus at crowded public transport termini and buses and to revolutionize urban transport system to enhance safety for non-motorized road users at Nairobi's Uhuru Park January 30, 2021. - AFP

NAIROBI: Nairobi, morning rush hour: the only cyclist on a busy highway, Steven Odhiambo is narrowly overtaken by a fast-moving minibus. "It's just a jungle, just fighting for your space on the road," says the 30-year-old video editor, who picked up cycling again at the onset of the pandemic after 20 years without a pedal stroke.

It is a risky business but since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Odhiambo has avoided crowded public transport and taken his chances on two wheels navigating the hectic roads of the Kenyan capital. The other choice is cramming into a 'matatu': colorfully painted minibuses jammed with some 15 commuters that hurtle around the city streets.

"I am much safer on a bicycle," said Odhiambo, adding that he was able to social distancing, and travel faster because he's not stuck in traffic. He wears a bright yellow vest and blows a whistle to make his presence known on his morning rides to the office.

It is a harrowing 15-kilometre (nine miles) journey without the protection of bike lanes, and he must navigate between antiquated trucks, speeding SUVs and motorcycles criss-crossing the lanes. Despite the perilous conditions, not to mention two minor accidents, Odhiambo has no intention of backpedalling.

He says he lost 20 kilograms (44 pounds) getting in the saddle, and made significant savings on transport thanks to a used bike he purchased for about 15,000 Kenyan shillings ($136 or 115 euros). "The best way to sensitize people about cycling and going green is to show people the benefit of it," he said.

Growing trend

Odhiambo is among a growing number in Nairobi switching to cycling since the pandemic, despite a critical lack of bike paths. It is a promising sign in a city where air pollution has increased 182 percent since the 1970s, according to a recent study by the University of Birmingham, and traffic jams cost an estimated $1 billion in lost productivity every year.

In his store for used bikes in the city Centre, Jimmy Karumba said he experienced at least a 50 percent rise in sales in last year. The shopkeeper, who mainly sold children's bikes before the pandemic, said he welcomed many adult customers looking to avoid public transport and stay fit.

In May, Benard Asin founded Spin Kings, a group dedicated to biking enthusiasts, and witnessed a surge to around 300 members in a matter of weeks. "I was even speechless. I didn't expect it to pick up that fast," the 27-year-old social worker said. "I can say 99 percent started cycling after the pandemic." While most remembered the basics "many people didn't know about changing gears," he said.

'Cyclists' lives matter'

Cyprine Odada of Critical Mass, an alliance of cyclist groups that holds monthly rides of up to 1,000 people in Nairobi, said the pandemic had shown policymakers that biking was popular and not exclusively transport for the poor. "Weirdly, COVID has been good for cycling," said Odada.

Many novices have sought out Critical Mass for advice about staying safe, said the 34-year-old urban planner. Cycling is far from harmless in Nairobi: 69 cyclists died last year in the capital, according to the National Transport Authority.

Between the scarcity of bicycle paths and often total absence of footpaths "our roads are a death trap", said Odada. In the city, some bikers have taken to wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "Cyclists' lives matter". Bike paths were built in Nairobi's business district last year, following the city's commitment in 2015 to allocate 20 percent of state funds for roads to non-motorized transport. Despite the progress, Odada said: "Kenya still has a long way to go".

Neighboring Ethiopia, for example, has offered a more ambitious response to the same problem. In 2019, the capital Addis Ababa adopted a 10-year strategy to promote non-motorized transport, including the construction of 200 kilometers of bicycle paths. - AFP