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Community Bike-Share Programs in Africa: Challenges and Benefits

In areas without easily accessible public transportation, people must walk to commute, run errands or get to school. But in many cases, foot travel just isn’t efficient enough. For many people, a bicycle is the answer.

Community bike programs have already been running in major cities all over the world, including Paris, London, Montreal, Mexico City, Miami and Washington DC. Inter Press Service (IPS) reports the total number of bike-share programs to be more than 130 worldwide.

Cape Town is one of the latest cities to consider adopting a public bike-share program for short trips, according to IPS. The bike rental system would allow users to pick up a bike at one of many points in the city and drop it off at another at an affordable cost.

Although the program is designed to make public transportation more accessible, there are major challenges to bike-share programs in developing cities. Several pilot programs in Cape Town have already launched with limited success.

In cities where bikes are valuable commodities, theft poses a major threat to bike-share programs. Because there are few secure places to lock up an expensive bike, organizers fear thieves and vandals will ruin the program for everybody. Some cities in Africa and India choose to sacrifice convenience for security, hiring guards or requiring registration paperwork to participate. While this solution does create jobs, it also reduces the likelihood that people will use a rental bike if they’re looking for quick and easy transportation.

Also of concern is the deposit and payment method; credit cards or down payments may alienate poorer users who don’t have the money or resources to pay a refundable rate upfront. Some locations in Africa are experimenting with alternative forms of deposit. In Rwanda, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Zambia, people can opt to leave behind their shoes for insurance and retrieve them when the bike is returned.

Roads can also be dangerous for cyclists. Along with reckless drivers and busy traffic, riders face roads that are rocky or damaged and not safe for bicycles. Especially if riders do not wear their mandatory helmets, this could be a significant obstacle in developing cities.

Bicycle taxis are another alternative to bike-share programs; they can move quickly through traffic and are better suited for people in long, flowing clothes. They also solve the problem of insurance or a deposit, because passengers can simply pay the driver by the kilometer. In Malawi the bicycle taxis, or boda bodas, have been popular for customers looking for an affordable alternative to public transportation.

Access to bicycles is a gateway to other public services like healthcare, education and economic development. According to World Bicycle Relief, a nonprofit that provides “access to independence and livelihood through the power of bicycles,” bikes enable people to carry five times more supplies and travel four times as far as on foot. People in need of medicine can reach the nearest clinic more easily, and quality educators can travel to areas that were previously too remote. Bike-share programs in Africa would undoubtedly help communities grow; however, organizers will have to come up with innovative ways to overcome some significant challenges.

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