The Cycling Evolution

When the bicycle was first invented and distributed in Europe around 1885, it was hailed as a technological revolutionary breakthrough that would free women from patriarchy and liberate the poor.

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Published February 27, 2007 by The Statesman 
By Chris Benjamin

Accra — When the bicycle was first invented and distributed in Europe around 1885, it was hailed as a technological revolutionary breakthrough that would free women from patriarchy and liberate the poor.  Indonesia's first newspaper publisher was thrilled by the invention because it gave him a freedom of movement previously unattainable for a native in a colonised land.

Everyone would have access to this low-cost two-wheeled device; no more relying on expensive horses and buggies.  No more dodging unwanted care packages courtesy of surly hoofed giants. 

How far the cycle has since sunk

It has been crushed, in fact, under the four-wheeled automobile.  In the 1910s, American Henry Ford vowed that anyone working for him would be able to afford the cars they were building. His mass production techniques allowed the automobile to proliferate worldwide.

Yet, a hundred years later, only 10 percent of people on the planet own cars.  The one billion bicycle riders can only look on at that minority with envy, or jump out of the way shaking their fists in anger.

Because of its comfort, speed, convenience and exclusiveness, the car is the ultimate status symbol.  In most modern cities it is given precedence over other forms of transport.

In Accra, you need a death wish to cycle, and cyclists are looked upon as the lunatic fringe, too poor or too stupid to take a taxi or at least a trotro.

Bike riders are scorned even in the higher learning corridors of Legon, where taxis are all the rage.  Everyone else is either poor or one of those zany obruni with more money than brains.

The cost of Accra's failure to accommodate cyclists is traffic congestion, pollution, and an accident rate that would make a sword juggler cringe.  Cyclists are the most common collision victims and tend to come out the worst for wear.  Drivers are unable or unwilling to see bicycles or acknowledge that there is a human being atop the strange apparatus.

Better Bicycle Planning

It doesn’t have to be this way.  In many of the best planned cities in the world, the bicycle is king and the car a humble if opulent accessory.  Amsterdam has so many cyclists that it has bicycle parking lots where two-wheelers stretch the eyes’ capacity.  Beijing has bike lines wide enough to hold the critical mass of commuters every single day.  Several of the largest cities in North American have networks of bike lanes snaking through every neighbourhood.

Some cities, such as Copenhagen, have organised bike loan systems courtesy of municipal and NGO-run programming.  You simply grab a designated bike, pop in a coin, ride until you finish, and return the bike to one of many automated stations to get your coin back. 

The city of Toronto Canada has a well-organised cycling committee that advises city council on cycling-related issues.  City planners have developed a 10-year bike plan that, while consistently behind schedule, is slowly ensuring that cyclists are recognised as model citizens because they minimise pollution and maintain their own health in the process. 

Most importantly the efforts of this committee protect cyclists’ safety and make their chosen means of transportation more accessible.   They produce an annual cycling map of the city, plan bike lanes, work with 'cycling ambassadors’ to teach and promote safe cycling, advocate for training of drivers so that they are more aware of cyclists, and work with cycling police officers to enforce the rules of the road.

Cities like these have recognised the many benefits of cycling: it is inexpensive, produces no pollutants, it is a healthy form of exercise, it is quick and inefficient (when cities are designed to accommodate more than just cars, trips of up to several kilometres are faster by bike), it is fun, and it attracts tourists.  Beijing has a very healthy informal sector business renting out bikes to tourists who want to try cycling with the masses.  Some cities have also made money hosting international cycling events, most notably the Tour de France, which gives several French cities an annual economic shot in the arm.

In Tamale, where traffic flows so smoothly it makes Accra residents drool, the bicycle also receives due recognition. 

It is there you can see veiled women with babies on their backs pumping pedal side-by-side, cruising quickly down well-paved lanes reserved for the two-wheeled.  No one seems to be in much of a hurry yet everyone gets where they are going quickly.

Meanwhile in the south we sneer snidely northward with derisive comments and mock pity. "They are so poor; they can’t afford cars like us," we say, as we sit atop our idling engine, coughing on the smoky haze.

Chris Benjamin has had the privilege of cycling in multiple cities in Canada, the United States, Denmark, Finland, and China, but he has yet to find the courage to ride a bike in Accra.