Cyclists build culture of green transportation in traffic-choked Nairobi

Nairobi is a city accustomed to the rain. But even here, several days of back-to-back downpours can turn gutters into rivers and roadways into soup. 

Mud, exhaust and precipitous potholes lurking beneath accumulated pools of water are just some of the hazards the city’s small but growing band of dedicated cyclists contend with on their daily commutes. But confounding as these obstacles are, they pale in their severity when compared to the greatest peril on Nairobi’s thoroughfares – motor vehicle traffic.

Like many big cities throughout Africa, urban planning in Nairobi has been a relatively haphazard affair. The Kenyan capital’s master plan was fashioned by colonial administrators, for whom the concerns of indigenous residents were far from the top of mind. 

As the population ballooned in the years following independence, with ad hoc informal settlements cropping up to accommodate the ever-growing numbers of new migrant arrivals, Nairobi’s roadways transformed into a mishmash of every form of transport imaginable – from donkey carts, and hand-pulled wagons, to the city’s ubiquitous matatu minibuses and of course, the almighty automobile. 

It is the proliferation of cars that helped seal the city’s reputation as one of the most traffic-plagued in the region and the world. Simple cross-town journeys can easily transform into multi-hour, smog-choked marathons of congestion-themed initiation rites. In 2013 alone, researchers estimated more than $16 million US dollars had been lost to traffic jams in the form of wasted time and fuel. 

It’s unsurprising then, that many in the city are beginning to turn to cleaner, more maneuverable alternatives.

Enter the humble bicycle. Long-stigmatized in parts of Africa as a sort of ‘poor man’s vehicle,’ this two-century-old invention has been slow to become a fixture of Nairobi’s transport landscape. 

Nonetheless, a committed corps of dedicated riders is working hard against the combined headwinds of infrastructure and status-bound car culture to build up a supportive and inclusive cycling community. 

Monthly group rides, organized under the banner of ‘Critical Mass’ have been a part of this grass-roots effort to raise visibility and build confidence around this green, healthy and — most importantly — affordable form of urban transit. 

Veteran rider Austin Otieno explains it as a simple case of “strength in numbers.” The logic is straightforward: anywhere between several dozen to several hundred riders assemble at the appointed place and time and set out for a recreational jaunt through the city’s busiest thoroughfares. 

Genevieve Otieno (9) takes to the road with her father Austin at Nairobi’s monthly Critical Mass community cycling event.

The father explains how cyclists taking to the streets in force provides a safe and welcoming space for new riders to build confidence on otherwise perilous urban terrain, while raising awareness among motorists on how to best share the road with pedal-powered vehicles. 

Not far away, sporting a bright pink reflective jacket, protective headgear and a beaming smile, Otieno’s daughter Genevieve nods in agreement. The nine-year-old says having so many fellow riders around puts her at ease, before mounting up to once again brave the hulking lorries that ply the capital’s famously congested Mombasa Road 

It’s not just young children who benefit from a more accessible cycling culture. Nairobi’s women are also getting organized to make this form of urban transit more equitable. Carol Mbutura sits on the board of Dada Rides, a local cycling sisterhood aimed at chipping away at gender-based stigmas and getting more women in the saddle. 

“We used to have very few women on the roads,” she tells us, “but now we have more and more.” The organizer emphasizes that cycling for women is not only a healthy leisure activity but also an effective method of commuting that can add to women’s autonomy in the way they navigate the city. 

Though women are a small but growing segment of Nairobi’s bicycling community, it remains a cohort largely dominated by men.

Fellow Dada Rides member Lieke Nijk says more is needed to reduce barriers to entry for would-be cyclists in Nairobi. The Dutch transplant points out the glaring lack of bicycle infrastructure compared to her native Netherlands but says events like Critical Mass can make a difference. 

“What we find is that many people like to cycle, but they don’t dare to cycle. The nice thing about Critical Mass is that we cycle as a group. It allows people who are shy, to try it for themselves and see how they like it.”

Photos and videography by Bemnet Goitom