Nairobi resident Cyprine Odada was so tired of gridlock that in 2015 she decided to try cycling to work. Her first two-wheeled commute through the Kenyan capital was an eye-opener.
“It was very scary, and most motor-vehicle users weren’t friendly,” said Odada, a city planner. “There were many who thought cyclists, and especially women, shouldn’t be on our roads.”
Her experience was far from unique. Across Kenya and much of Africa, pedestrians and cyclists routinely face hazards like speeding cars, crumbling sidewalks and, during the rainy season, flooding. Every day, an average of 261 pedestrians and 18 cyclists are killed on Africa’s roads.
However, cities across the continent are taking what experts call encouraging steps to lower those numbers. Municipalities from Cape Town to Cairo are building cycling lanes, improving pedestrian access to public transit, and rehabilitating urban infrastructure.
Along with making roads safer, the changes could help reduce air pollution — which kills hundreds of thousands of people annually in Africa — by empowering people to choose safe and comfortable low-carbon transport modes and avoid soot-spewing cars.
“Policies and investments that promote walking and cycling save lives and also combat congestion, air pollution and climate change,” said Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of the Economy Division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Although the continent as a whole is historically among the lowest emitters, Africa’s transport sector produced nearly 330 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, a number that is rising quickly.
Many of the municipal efforts to improve road safety are outlined in a new report by UNEP, the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and the Walk21 Foundation.
The publication, Walking and Cycling in Africa: Evidence and Good Practice to Inspire Action, is designed to encourage policymakers to make roads safer for all users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians.
“The billion people that walk and cycle for almost an hour every day put their lives at incredible risk the moment they step outside of their homes,” the report said. “They must navigate streets without accessible sidewalks. They have to cross roads scattered with speeding cars or navigate make-shift crossings."
Experts say that by building walking and cycling infrastructure, cities can entice people away from cars, buses and motorcycles, helping to ease the often-deadly pollution hanging over many African cities. A UNEP-funded study found that ambient air pollution accounted for 394,000 deaths on the continent in 2019.
In Nairobi, for example, the dominant type of air pollution is fine particulate matter (PM2.5). In 2020, the average PM2.5 concentration in the Kenyan capital was 14.7 micrograms per cubic metre, according to data compiled by UNEP and IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company. That is about 1.5 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization.
The move away from fossil-fuel-burning vehicles could also help lower the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. Africa’s transport sector produced nearly 330 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, a number that is rising quickly.
Despite being the dominant mode of transport in Africa, walking and cycling are generally the least considered in urban planning. Infrastructure investments tend to focus on motorized vehicles, including the increasing number of privately owned cars.
The Walking and Cycling in Africa report follows the launch last year of the Cycling Cities Campaign, which is supported by UNEP and UN-Habitat. The report called for systematic investment in dedicated infrastructure, like sidewalks, bike lanes and road crossings. It urged cities to make roadways near schools safer and encouraged officials to map out public transport stops to ensure they are walkable or bikeable.
The report highlights a case study from Lusaka, Zambia, where officials, with support from UNEP and other UN agencies, used crash data to map the city’s most dangerous roads and intersections. That data, officials hope, will be used to make targeted infrastructure improvements.
Odada, the urban planner, hopes to see more evidence-based decision making like that in the years to come.
“As an urban planner, I initially hadn’t made the connection between my work and the safety of cyclists and pedestrians on our roads,” said Odada, who now works with the cycling safety group Critical Mass Nairobi.
“We need better road designs that incorporate cycling lanes and formulation of better policies and laws to protect cyclists and pedestrians.”
UNEP is the leading global voice on the environment and is actively supporting sustainable mobility initiatives. It supports governments and partners in implementing policies, technologies and investments that lead to low-carbon transport. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.
To fight the pervasive impact of pollution on society, UNEP launched #BeatPollution, a strategy for rapid, large-scale and coordinated action against air, land and water pollution. The strategy highlights the impact of pollution on climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and human health. Through science-based messaging, the campaign showcases how transitioning to a pollution-free planet is vital for future generations.