Nairobi — Cyclists in Nairobi are benefiting from the Kenyan government's plan to reduce congestion and pollution with new highway construction.
The government has created bike lanes on a new superhighway in the capital and lowered taxes on bicycles to encourage urban residents to use them. The aim is to make people less dependent on cars, easing the city's notorious traffic clogs and reducing carbon emissions from vehicles.
Around 100 km (60 miles) of new highway have been built in the Nairobi area alone, equipped along much of their length with dedicated lanes for those who wish to ride their bikes instead of driving. Mwai Kibaki, Kenya's outgoing president, opened the highways in December 2012.
The capital has a population of around 3 million but since many people commute to the city from nearby towns there are more than 7 million users on its roads each day, officials estimate.
This figure includes motorists, pedestrians and about 150,000 bicyclists, according to the African Development Bank, which financed the $360 million road construction project jointly with the Chinese government.
In Nairobi, the new 50 km Thika Road superhighway has up to eight lanes in places. Bike lanes run along the outside for about half its length, and there are footbridges for pedestrians.
The government's plan to encourage people to use bicycles and rely less on cars is part of a climate change policy initiated in early 2010. But users of the new bike lanes praise them primarily as time savers.
PRAISE FROM USERS
"The bike lanes are convenient," said Johnson Brown, 54, an auto parts dealer who lives in Roysambu, an upscale Nairobi suburb, and commutes to work each day. "Within 20 minutes I can easily be in downtown Nairobi. This is compared with being held up in car traffic for two to three hours in just a single journey to work."
"The bike lanes have helped a lot," agreed Ibrahim Mwenda, a street vendor who lives by the Thika highway.
"In the past, the fuel in my car could not last long considering that traffic on this road used to last two hours," the 21-year-old said. "I now use my bike three times a week (to go to work) and I not only save on fuel but it is very convenient as I can get into the city centre of the city much faster."
Mwenda added that buying a bike was made easier by the government's move to cut value-added tax on bicycles by 90 percent, lowering the cost of a low-end bike from $14 to about $12.
Business owners say they are also benefitting from the improved transport network.
"The road project is helping businesses do well since they can get their goods and services sold faster," said Vimal Shah, head of Bidco Oil and a member of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance.
Benson Kibui, Nairobi's traffic police commandant, hopes that the changes will make the roads safer as well as more environmentally friendly by reducing the number of accidents. According to Kibui, there were about 400 accidents annually on the old road, many involving pedestrians.
"Now we have footbridges along the road and bike lanes that have reduced accidents on the highway," Kibui said.
Chirau Ali Mwakwere, environment minister in the outgoing government, said that promoting bicycle riding was a new policy for the government.
"A lot of people, mostly in Nairobi, are turning to bike lanes," Mwakwere said, but he acknowledged that turning the tide of vehicular traffic would take time. Each year, the Transport Licensing Board licenses about 7,000 new cars in Nairobi, he said.
The roads minister in the outgoing government said there were plans to increase the number of bike lanes not just in Nairobi but also in other urban areas of Kenya, including Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and Eldoret.
Construction is expected to begin in the third quarter of this year, with the goal of eventually increasing the country's road network from the current 100,000 miles (160,000 km) to half a million miles (800,000 km).
Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.