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UoN innovators test bicycle-sharing system to decongest city

Imagine alighting from a public transport vehicle and walking into a nearby station to pick up a bicycle for a ride to any destination within Nairobi’s congested city centre.

Well, Dr Tonny Omwansa, the brains behind Nairobi’s bicycle-sharing scheme, thinks Kenya is ripe for this form of public transit system. He came up with the idea late last year after a business trip to Israel’s ‘White City’ of Tel Aviv.

Back home, he teamed up with innovators at the University of Nairobi’s (UoN) Computing for Development Laboratory (C4DLab) to tweak the idea to fit the Kenyan scenario.


Hardly one year down the line, Dr Omwansa, the C4DLab director, has been leading a team at the university’s Chiromo Campus through the second pilot phase of what could grow to become Kenya’s first bike sharing programme.

The programme has since secured a Sh1 million grant from the UN-Habitat to promote its initial stages in Nairobi.

“We have four tough and hardy bicycles from US maker Buffalo Bikes and docking stations at the university’s main campus and one at the Chiromo campus to track users’ attitude in a controlled environment,” Dr Omwansa said.

“Students,especially the female ones have warmed up to the bike sharing idea,” he said.

Bicycle sharing is a flexible form of personal public transport. Under the scheme, bikes are stored in a closely spaced network of stations. Users can check the availability of a bicycle from a docking station, use it for a short ride, and return it to any other station close to their destination.

Bike sharing stations are often located near public transport systems, offices, universities and malls to provide last-mile connectivity, said Dr Omwansa.

The C4DLab sees cycling as a sustainable mode of transport in urban transport.

In Kenya 49 per cent of all trips are made by non-motorised transport (both walking and cycling where no fuel is used). Public transport accounts for 42 per cent of the trips while private cars take up only nine per cent.


Last year, City Hall launched a non-motorised transport (NMT) policy to promote a cycling culture as well as reduce the carbon footprint in the city.

The policy shows that a high proportion of Nairobi residents walk or use NMT, mainly for journeys less than eight kilometres.

“Every day we see Nairobians walking through Uhuru Park to and from Upper Hill. For some it is out of choice, perhaps they want to keep fit, and others just dread getting stuck in traffic,” said Dr Omwansa.

“Pedestrians and cyclists have to share the crowded roads with motorised traffic due to the lack of NMT facilities hence the need for the bike sharing scheme,” said Dr Omwansa, adding that will also help in cutting environmental pollution, increase safety and reduce traffic congestion.

Cycling promotes environmental friendly and sustainable cities. The NMT policy will direct 18.2 per cent of their annual road construction budget in the current year to construction of NMT infrastructure.

Dr Omwansa said that come September, Kenyans would be using the bike sharing scheme from a point in Nairobi’s central business district to Upper Hill, where dedicated paths are already in place.

The next project phase will be on Thika Road and around Yaya Centre. The Kenya Urban Roads Authority has been tasked to design and construct appropriate infrastructure for cycling.


The C4DLab is set to procure 30 mountain bikes at about Sh10,000 each from the Chicago-based Buffalo Bikes, a global not-for profit organisation at the forefront of innovation, providing technical expertise to accelerate the growth of sustainable transport and urban development around the world.

Buffalo Bikes have also expressed interest of donating more bikes after the scheme fully takes off. They will also provide training to field mechanics.

When fully implemented, users will be required to register for the programme first before using the bicycles. This, compared to the costs in countries already implementing the programme, would roughly cost Sh1,000 as annual fee per user.

The users, including the disabled, will then receive training on how the programme works, Dr Omwansa said, adding that individuals’ information will be recorded digitally. Through cloud technology, the bicycles in use will be tracked in real time to deter theft.

Innovations to reduce theft will also include number plates, alarm system which has geo-sensing capability, bike identification using colour and reflectors.


“Intel is willing to provide GPS tracking chips that will be installed on the bicycles so that we won’t have to worry about theft. We are bringing partners on board in different capacities,” said Dr Omwansa.

The innovators are also working on cheap but strong helmet designs, which can be used once to maintain hygiene.The design would also incorporate solar-powered bikes for hilly terrain.

Containers will be strategically located to act as bicycle clinics where users can wheel their bikes for repair. “When a bike breaks down under your use, someone has to pay,” said Dr Omwansa.

As of 2013, more than 600 cities around the globe had incorporated the bike sharing systems in their transport sectors, according to the US Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

The ITDP shows that the largest bicycle sharing systems are in Chinese cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai, Washington D.C. in the US, Paris in France and London in the UK. Others include Brazil and Israel.

High station density, easy check-in and check-out system, tracking system, real time monitoring of station, real time user information and high quality bicycles are some of the contributors of the programme’s success in the mentioned countries.

According to experts, cycling reduces car dependency, improves mobility and public health as well as boosts a city’s image.


Dr Omwansa said that during this year’s UoN innovation week there will be a boot camp where users will be allowed to test the bicycles.

He said that they don’t want to rush the programme due to its complexity, in order to produce a reasonable product that shall be embraced by all.

“We are working with the UN-Habitat to create a road map before procurement. We are behind schedule but by September, bike sharing will be running as we continue to crowdfund to scale up the programme,” said Dr Omwansa.

According to Maina Gachoya of the Institute for Transportating and Development Policy, sensitisation needs to be done before rolling out the project.

“Another issue that might prevent the success of cycling in Nairobi is the conflict with boda boda operators who might feel insecure on possible loss of customers hence the need for proper awareness,” said Mr Gachoya.