I’m walking along Entebbe road in Kampala. A commuter taxi jolts and another screeches to a stop. More cars come in, honking madly. Several commercial motorcycles (boda bodas) cross over to the sidewalk to avoid a pothole. The pedestrians on the sidewalks are forced to jump over the side drains. Bicyclists yell insults at the reckless motorists. The atmosphere is loud, aggressive and irritating. It’s about 7:00pm in the evening. The music of the city has changed to hard rock. I look around and see amid the wheels, frightened pedestrians; men, women and children. A little girl clings desperately to her mum’s hands. Shockingly I realize that all this is happening on a clearly marked zebra crossing.
It is not easy to be a pedestrian on the streets of Kampala, a city which is high on private transport and pro-car social mindsets. Because of this the city doesn’t allow right of way to those who do not own a personal vehicle or are not interested in its archaic public transport system. When it tries the manner seems apologetic and secondary to the idea of a personalized vehicle or passenging. Walking is the most natural and most sustainable means of movement but in Kampala there is an appalling lack of pedestrian priority connections. Thus the idea of a car-free lifestyle even for one day seems fictional to me. To hear that it will be happening in a certain neighborhood for a whole month greets me with a mix of curiosity and awe.
Many questions begin to run through my mind. How then do you reach your destination in the shortest possible time, in the easiest possible manner? Are the alternatives cheaper, safer? Do they cater to the needs of the people? I may not be able to find answers to these questions today, even tomorrow but hopefully in September during the EcoMobility Festival in Suwon, South Korea.
Like most people in this country I harbored the fixed mindset that owning a car is a mark of wealth and high social class. That the rich drive and the poor walk. While on my heels I envied those who were behind the wheels. I began to spend long hours online looking at the latest models and gossips from the world of automobile. My favorite wallpapers were photos of Formula 1 drivers and their ‘toys’. I was desperate to own a car. Today the situation in Kampala has made me rethink this aspiration. I don’t believe that everyone should own a car and I don’t think we must all drive especially on our short, localized trips.
According to the New Vision newspaper, the Uganda Revenue Authority registers about 95 new cars daily and the annual average growth in the number of boda bodas is at 20%. Such statistics cast a grim picture on the hope for achieving carbon-neutral mobility in this city. The high-emission, fuel guzzling automobiles will consequentially cause severe risks to city dwellers and to the environment. Their influx also means traffic clogged streets will continue to be part of the cityscape thus maintaining the routine nightmares that people are experiencing on the streets of Kampala. Yet all this would change if the city allowed for more walking space instead of just wheels.