04 December 2014

Cycling Out Of Poverty?

Time was, not long ago, when one "graduated" from riding a bicycle.  In the US, that usually happened (and, sometimes, still happens) when someone gets his or her driver's license.

In much of the world, though, people have left their bicycles behind when they moved up on the socio-economic ladder--or when automobiles and petrol became more affordable.  Some of the newly-affluent (or middle-class) have continued to cycle for recreation, but for the most part, new motorists distance themselves from motorless two-wheeled vehicles in much the same way they might try to get as far away from the slums and working-class districts in which they had been living.

The phenomenon I've just described happened with increasing frequency in Europe:  It seemed that I saw fewer and fewer cyclists on each trip I took from 1980 until 2001.  Lately, though, there's been a resurgence in cycling, mainly among young people,in northern European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.  In the Danish capital, people who can easily afford the high auto and petrol prices choose to cycle because it's easier to navigate the city's traffic on two wheels, and because it's a way to de-stress.

We are also seeing people cycle because they can, though perhaps on a lesser scale, in some North American cities like Portland, San Francisco, New York and Montreal. However, in urban areas of emerging countries like China, the bicycle is still seen as something one escapes from, rather than on:  In Beijing in particular, automobiles are signs of prosperity and two wheels spin in a cycle of downward mobility.

However, there are still parts of the world in which the bicycle can be a vehicle out of poverty, so to speak.  One such place is East Africa, where New York-based Bicycles Against Poverty sells bicycles to local people on installment plans matched to their circumstances and conducts repair workshops, among other things.  

The best part, though, is that BAP engages with local communities by buying bicycles from Roadmaster, a Ugandan manufacturer--and, best of all, training local staff to conduct workshops and in financial management.  Bicycle distribution is determined by the answers received on applications; as the organization's website says, BAP "aims to strike a balance between an individual's need for a bicycle and their (sic) ability to pay for it".

It will be interesting to see where this model leads those who buy the bikes. One cause for optimism is that the BAP model seems to avoid the colonial paternalism of too many aid programs, which almost invariably leads to mismanagement and corruption. Will that lead local people to develop their own sustainable communities?  Or will prosperity lead them away from the bicyles?

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