After landing in Zanzibar for a brief work trip and confirming that it was indeed an actual place, the first thing I noticed was a refreshing lack of traffic compared to Dar es Salaam. The next thing I noticed was that the tree-lined streets are traveled by many more bikes and motorcycles than automobiles. Then, within five minutes of leaving the airport, we passed by the scene of a motorcycle accident.
Zanzibar’s population is growing at a worrisome pace – Stone Town, the main city, is a crumbly but beautiful remnant of Zanzibar’s Arabian nights history, but outside of the historic area you see the sprawling unplanned settlements common to expanding cities on the mainland. While the government is challenged to keep up basic services as the population grows, an effort to improve road conditions is apparent and most of the main ones are in pretty good shape. But the combination of population growth, more cars and smooth roads is leading to a tragic record on road safety even the President himself recently addressed.
Being a short visit to several villages around the northern part of the island, I didn’t have a chance to do any cycling myself but did spend some quality time from the back of our van watching and photographing the road late on a Sunday afternoon on our way back to Stone Town. As the sun started to set the roads were active but not so much with car traffic – most people were cyclists or walking. This particular road was in good shape and I was told had been recently tarmacked, but given the overwhelming majority using it for non-motorized transportation it surely didn’t seem that this was given much consideration in the design for its upgrading.
While overtaking a truck piled high with freshly-cut sugar cane, you get a peek that everyone up ahead is on foot or a bike, stretching across both lanes. There is a shoulder but it’s quite narrow considering the number of people using it.
Again, open road ahead, many people on the move but not too many with motors.
The next few photos are taken from my window as we zoomed past in the van. The pace of cycling is an easy one – mostly old Chinese steel-frame bikes, sturdy and good for hauling stuff, but not built for speed. People (mostly men) rode with bundles of firewood, veggies, and sacks of charcoal (and women) on the back. This contrasted with sparse but aggressive traffic, mostly trucks, daladalas, and boxy vans like ours. The images below look peaceful and pastoral, and the scene really was – but keep in mind I’m observing it from a vehicle going 50-60 mph.
I wasn’t able to find any decent data on how many people bike, walk and drive in Zanzibar, but it was clear that a lot of people bike, and they’re pedaling on smooth but aggressive roads. I also don’t know much yet on the details of the Decade of Action for Road Safety that kicked off this year (sponsored by the U.N. and WHO), but it’s timely and making a very needed connection between transportation and public health. I’m hoping that it includes not just traffic enforcement and awareness for drivers, but is also pushing for engineers and transport planners to taking a good look at who actually uses roads when investing to improve them – and that “improvement” means “safer” along with “faster”.
This is cross-posted from my new blog on cycling in Tanzania, Cyclopology. All photos by author.