Pan Africa Bicycle Information Network (PABIN)

On your bike, Mr President, Uganda's health demands it
The East African
26 November 2007
By Joachim Buwembo, editor of the Daily Monitor of Kampala

The recent traffic jams in Kampala caused by road repairs, along with brief street closures due to mock security exercises, have left thousands sitting helpless in stationary cars for hours, and others stranded at home or at work.

It is really pathetic, having to watch adults of sound mind sitting in a hot, crowded van for an hour doing nothing just because the traffic isn't moving.

Why can't they step out? Are they chained to their cars? The answer unfortunately, is yes. We have become chained to our cars mentally. We believe that without a car, personal or public, we cannot get anywhere in this city. An average sized person can walk five kilometres in an hour at a brisk pace. But he would rather sit for an hour in a taxi trying to cover one kilometre!

A visiting European or Asian would find it hard to comprehend why people here do not want to ride bicycles. The answer again is simple. If you rode a bicycle, people will think you are poor, and that is not good for your image. Either you own a car or pay to sit in one or you don't move. Cycling is not an option.

HERE, A BIKE IS A SIGN OF POVERTY and failure. You failed to make enough to buy a car, so you ride a bicycle. Bikes are for villagers, not smart townspeople. We now have the motorbike taxi, but that we use only in the suburbs where we think nobody important will see us. If you see someone on a boda boda bike taxi in the city centre, then he is an Asian businessman who has no time to waste sitting in stationary cars.

Strange, this anti-bicycle culture. After all, the Europeans we like to imitate do not hate bicycles. European MPs ride all the time. Scandinavian ministers ride bikes. Try and picture a Ugandan minister going to work on a bicycle. He'll only do it once before his staff overpower him and take him to a mental hospital.

Someone should tell the Ugandans that Tokyo has one million bicycles. It cannot be that the Japanese do not have cars. On the contrary, it is because they have so many cars that they choose to ride. We now also have too many cars for our unplanned city. But we have refused to get out of the cars. We would rather sit helplessly for two hours in a bid to cover two kilometres.

Asked why they do not ride bicycles to work, many in Kampala will tell you that it is too dangerous, that motorists would knock them dead. But if the ministers, councillors, MPs and their kids were to take up ride, they would ensure that cyclists' lanes are established to make it safe.

Will someone revive the glory of the two-wheeled machine? Imagine how healthy our executives would be if they had to cycle a bit every day? Now they have lifestyle diseases that they try to fight by going to health clubs but you should see what happens there. Very few engage in any serious workout; most end up gossiping, eating and drinking.

WE SHOULD START WITH THE president setting the pace. If he rode about town and were regularly photographed while at it, his ministers and MPs of the ruling party would follow suit. Then a few of the town's rich elite would also be encouraged to take up cycling.

That will do it. Cycling would become the politically correct thing to do overnight. Suddenly, our roads would be cleared of hordes of noisy, smoky, poorly serviced cars.

Coming to youth, we need to co-opt the services of the two Big Brother Africa stars in town. There is a man, Gaetano Kaggwa and a woman, Maureen Namatovu. If these two socialites were to ride bikes to go to the parties they are always being invited to, which teenager and 20-something wouldn't like to do the same?

Just one hitch, though. How many people in Kampala actually know how to ride a bicycle? Maybe the men who grew up in villages do. But you can bet there are more people who can drive a car than those who can balance on a bike in our city.

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