Urban dwellers mostly define transportation in terms of engine power. But the greatest share of personal needs are met by human power or pedal work, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA writes.
For Dafter Mofolo, a bicycle is a convenient alternative to walking to his job than shelling over two thirds of his pay on minibus fares.
The guard at Chichiri Trade Fair Grounds in Blantyre was seen pushing a bicycle with a flat tyre on Masauko Chipembere Highway.
“The front wheel h i t a concrete block on the pavement, but it’s not a big deal. I walk most of the times. Usually, I leave the bicycle to my school-going son,” he said.
Mofolo had to walk about 10 kilometres to the populous Mbayani Township instead of cycling past traffic jams typical of the commercial city’s main roads.
But the father-of-seven has a lot to gain by walking or cycling to and from work: A minibus would set him back by about K24 000 a month, just K1 000 short of the minimum wage set by government.
“If I commuted to work using a minibus, it will be a disaster for my family. We won’t pay rent. We won’t have food. I will be working all night for minibus owners, leaving my children starving and wearing rags,” he says.
However, the “small accident” that slowed Mofolo’s journey home exposes something amiss on the narrow roads of Malawi. There is simply no safe space for bicycles. Motor vehicles often push cyclists too close to the edge, a danger Mofolo had to negotiate in haste when the front wheel crashed the concrete pavement.
“We a r e t r a v e l l i n g dangerously,” he says. “There is no place to escape. The roads were made exclusively for motor vehicles, with no cyclists in mind. When I use a bicycle, I often drop off or swerve to the sidewalk to pave the way for motor vehicles.”
Mofolo’s agony affects a silent majority, especially low-income urban dwellers who usually live far from where they work.
As cities become more populated, cycling has become a new big when it comes to beating traffic jams, poverty, air pollution and deadly non-communicable diseases fuelled by a lack of physical exercises.
The 2018 census shows that the country’s population has soared from 13 million to 17.6 million in the past decade.
With more than 1.4 million households or 35.8 percent owning bicycles, peddle work in the country remains the leading transportation.
However, nearly all roads— minus a newly-constructed section from Parliament Roundabout to Bingu Narional Stadium dual carriageway in Lilongwe—are designed without a cycling lane even though there are 15 times more bicycles than motor vehicles.
“At regional level, 31.9 percent of households in the Northern Region had a bicycle, 34.8 in the Central Region and 37.7 in the Southern Region,” the census shows.
Most of these bicycles move people and goods in rural areas where bad roads keep away motor vehicles. Amin Issa, from Traditional Authority Nkanda in Mulanje, has no choice but to make the most of bicycle taxis.
“The road to my village is bad. No vehicle goes to my village. A bridge on one of the rivers is broken. Sometimes, I hire two or three bicycles to carry bulky bags of potatoes,” says the sweet potato vendor of Nkando.
In Mzuzu City, bicycles s u p p l e m e n t m o t o r i s e d transport. Since 2003, the bicycle taxis called Sacramento by the residents have almost flushed minibuses out of the city. On Chibavi-Chibanja Road, wheels whirr and bells tinkle, bizarrely signalling motorists to pave the way for bikes.
In such settings—where urban workers cycle to jobs and move commodities to markets—pedal power is the only substitute for walking that many people can afford.
Town planner Ntafu Zeleza Manda, from Mzuzu University, said the bicycle taxis usually banished from cities and towns are an important part of the local economies.
H i s s t u d y i n M z u z u established that Sacramento is an indelible part of Mzuzu’s transport culture, a second line of income for enterprising working class struggling with the rising cost of living.
Manda urges local councils and Roads Authority to ensure roads taking shape have clearly marked bicycle lanes to ease mobility and reduce accidents.
Meanwhile, a steady rise in driving in urban areas is pushing congestion and air pollution to hazardous levels.
The toxic fumes and global warming caused by diesel and petrol combustion call for cleaner alternatives to automobile-centred transport, says Malawi Environmental Endowment Trust (Meet) director Karen Price.
“To develop a culture of cycling to work, we need i n f r a s t r u c t u r e . In other countries, they have provision for bikes and pedestrians. As we plan for new roads, walkable and bikable lanes are a critical consideration,” she says.
Just last month, a review of 13 years’ worth of data from 12 major US cities revealed that protected separated bicycle lanes make reduces fatal accidents and injuries not only for those pedalling, but motorists and pedestrians too.
“If you are going out of your way to make your city safe for a broader range of cyclists, we are finding that it ends up being a safer city for everyone,” says co-researcher Wesley Marshall, an engineering professor at University of Colorado Denver.
For many Malawians, the only affordable alternative to walking is a public minibus, but minibuses can be too costly for low earners living far from their workplaces.
“I’m better off cycling, but the roads are not bike-friendly,” he says.