12 November 2012

Nigeria: Bringing Swaggerlicious Back to the Bike in Lagos

As Nigeria's economic nerve centre battles to work out a manageable transport system for its exploding population, Park and Ride tests how bicycles can help turn Lagos into a green mega city.

"It is not swaggerlicious to be seen riding bicycles in Nigerian cities," said Emmanuel Essien, of 'Mannie and the Angels' morning show fame. And it's for this reason that DJ Mannie, as he's known, led this year's Park and Ride.

Organized by leading private radio station Cool FM on 28 October, the event was meant to be, as Mannie put it, "a public demonstration to the people of Lagos and Nigeria that climate change is real and to demonstrate publicly that there are other modes of transportation that can reduce natural disasters that we see across the world caused by burning gases and fuels".

But the bid for bicycles intended not only to address environmental issues, important to Mannie - who has cycled to work for the last three years - but also to encourage healthier choices.

"There's also the matter of improving people's wellbeing," said the DJ. "The average life expectancy of a Nigerian is placed at 42. I think that is a disaster."

Jump-start

Park and Ride's third annual edition attracted some 100 participants, both young and old. The event kicked off with a ten-minute aerobics session that was meant to jump-start riders' physical fitness.

Then, defying the raging hot sun and 32-degree temperature, the cyclists set out. Led by Mannie, they rode along major roads through the heart of the city. A cache of vans and motorcycles with officials from the very strict Lagos State Traffic Management Authority formed a convoy behind the bikers, as they cleared the light traffic.

As the ride progressed, a number of bicycles broke down, their tyres busting. Some riders, apparently not used to cycling under such intense heat, became exhausted along the way. Adequate mobile medical services and police vans were there to pick them up.

Church or cycling?

Among the participants was Nollywood veteran actor Victor Olaotan. He told RNW that he learned to ride a bicycle as a child, though hadn't cycled in the last six years. "I think it is a good, healthy exercise for the heart and the body," he said.

"I had a difficult choice to make between going to church and doing this," said another Nollywood actor, Kunle Coker, in reference to Park and Ride. "We are in a country where people just do a lot of things to show off, such as driving their cars - posh or not - to the shortest distance possible, and if we don't work on our health we won't be productive nation. A lot of our wonderful people are dying because of lack of basic exercise."

The actors' endorsements were surely music to the ears of DJ Mannie, who has said that "the notion of bicycle-riding in this urban part of the world is that it is rural, it's native and poor".

"This psyche," he continued, "can be addressed by getting celebrities that people look up to, involved. That way we create a swagger around the bike, by thinking global and acknowledging that our environment is in danger and we have nowhere to run to."

The finish

Eleven kilometres later, Park and Ride concluded at the office of the Lagos State governor. Receiving the cyclists on his behalf was state transportation commissioner Kayode Opeifa.

"All over the world, people now ride bikes to work because it saves the environment of a gaseous emission that is harmful to the environment," he said.

Opeifa announced that some lanes along major roads in the city would soon be marked as biking zones, in line with the government's revamp of the Lagos transport system. The commissioner also spoke about bicycles as a good alternative to okadas. Lagos State recently restricted use of the commercial motorcycles to just a few minor roads in the city, saying that their accident rate was worrying. (In the last two years, 107 lives were reportedly lost in such incidents.)

Acknowledging that the tropical weather in Lagos makes cycling a sweaty affair, Opeifa added that the government would urge offices to build showers.

Speaking to a very exhausted - indeed dampened - crowd, Mannie said: "This is history. It is a new trend for transportation to include cycling in Lagos."

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