Being a driver in Nairobi for over ten years has made me a better cyclist; ability to know how Nairobi drivers think and in some cases predict their behaviour (with the exception of the erratic matatu and taxi cab drivers) has helped me survive this long, as a daily cycle-commuter. The only cyclist I knew of when I turned to cycling, gave me two major tips: “Keep to the left of traffic” and “Look over your shoulder to see what’s happening” (Thanks for the encouragement Allan G.). After a few months of cycling I have some more survival tips to share: About drivers:
- Drivers always underestimate your speed (2o-30km/hr depending on terrain gradient, your strength and stamina) approaching a junction and may cut you off as they turn left, leaving you in a heap, or worse, crashed by the next car. You need to show the driver coming up behind you, early, that you do not intend to turn left into a junction, just in case he/she does. It may be difficult at first controlling the bike with one hand while signalling… practice, practice away from traffic.
- Some drivers may hoot as they come up behind you, mostly because they are nervous about your riding skills. Stay calm.
- Listen to the sound of the engine as a vehicle approaches behind you to determine the size of the vehicle and prepare to make more room for the trucks, large SUVs and buses if the road is a narrow two-way. For the large SUVs and small canter trucks you need only hug the curb tighter with the left pedal raised to avoid scrapping the curb block and getting thrown off balance. For the large trucks, 62-seater buses and lorries, you may need to get off the curb side and onto the pedestrian footpath completely, especially if the oncoming traffic is busy. The sound of the engine can also tell you if the driver is speeding or slowing down. If they are slowing down, it may be because they are finding you unpredictable, maybe wobbly, as you navigate the ruts in the road. In this case you may need to encourage them to overtake you by gesturing with your hand in a “come” signal.
- For the point above; note the sections in the curb of your regular route (s) that can allow you a quick escape when you need to. Be prepared to request the driver to slow down to give you time to move, by making the “slow down” hand signal.
Over taking a slow driver or riding through slow traffic: Cyclists in Kenya are expected to be riding along the left, near the curb. In Kenya, this is the driver’s blind side, they will not be expecting you to be there if they haven’t yet seen you as they came up behind you (assuming it’s in slow traffic and you are moving faster than the cars). The first rule is: Always assume the driver is using his/her mobile phone as they drive (nowadays). This means they are distracted and may begin to “hug” the curb as you come along on the left.
- Look through the rear windshield or rear passenger door window (which is hopefully not tinted) to see what is happening in the car before you overtake on the left; is it an animated conversation, is driver looking back into back seat at a passenger as they converse, is the driver on his/her cell phone (not on hands-free mode), adjusting the radio? Once, along Dennis Pritt Road (a very narrow two-way), as I came down a gentle incline on the left behind a blue Volkswagen Golf in slow morning traffic, it suddenly started to list towards the curb, I braked suddenly and nearly hit the said car’s left tail light with my aluminum, right handle-bar. Upon over taking the female driver, on the right along the yellow line, as there was no room on the left, I looked in through the driver’s window to see her talking to a toddler in the passenger seat, too small for me to have seen through the rear wind shield!
- The matatus (public transport vehicles) leave the most room on the left for cyclists in areas with a high curb, always ready to overlap on the wrong side even on a narrow two-way road. Never ever ever overtake a matatu in slow traffic on the right along the yellow line, this especially if the oncoming traffic side is clear.
- On the main highway, ensure that you do your best to get to the traffic lights whenever the flow of traffic is stopped, by cycling between cars on the white lines, staying as close to the left lane as possible. Look out for pedestrians crossing randomly between cars, motor cyclists also moving between the lanes and passengers alighting from stationary buses, matatus or personal cars and the odd truck driver urinating by his truck (I kid you not!).
- Beginner: The best roads to cycle along as a novice commuter, believe it or not, are the main roads and the highway; the lanes are wider so you have more room on the left. The start-stop movement gives the cyclist opportunity to move further forward. Ensure that you are visible by wearing reflective clothing and be predictable. One of my favourite roads is the lower section of Ngong Road (Nairobi Baptist – Adams arcade). When I mentioned Ngong Road to a visiting German friend, “But it’s so p’lluted!” she exclaimed. I pointed out the spaces in the paving blocks that help me escape when things get hairy.
- Beginner: Sunday Mornings and bank holidays are the best to venture out and build on your commuter confidence as traffic is low or at least sparse.
- Navigating roundabouts the first time can be daunting. To begin with, stay behind the trailer truck at the head of traffic as it will very likely go straight along the left lane, where you already are. Use the truck to shield you as the traffic lights go green. The motorists on the left approach to roundabout are least likely to dash across if a truck is coming up, giving you time to get used to the roundabout. This article outlines how to deal with large vehicles. You are on the left lane and the driver nearest to you and behind you are likely to be turning left, ensure that you hand signal to indicate that you are going straight, so that the driver behind you gives you time to go forward. If it is a large truck stay behind it to allow it to turn left or go straight before you.
- Matatus (public transport vehicle), as earlier indicated, are driven erratically and recklessly, and we are all aware that their driving can inspire even the most pious amongst us to let out choice expletives at the driver. If you ride along routes with heavy matatu and mini bus presence, be patient and friendly. Insulting a matatu driver could land you in casualty.
I met a European guy at a bike repair shop who had been a cyclists in Nairobi for about six months. He had recently been hospitalized for a broken rib after being involved in a bike crash… He did not want to go into the details of the accident with me. Talking to the bike repair mech, who had overheard our conversation, I found out that the rider had a habit of having altercations with matatu drivers, and got swiped by one.
- Note the flaws in the paving blocks along the curb, they can be the only thing between saving your life and a crash in case a vehicle is overlapping on the wrong side as another comes up behind you. A simple thing such as an inadvertent gap is sufficient to keep you moving as you escape, try try not to stop. Now that Nairobi is getting a road networks facelift, I am going to miss the flaws in the paving that have been very convenient so far.
- Look back over your right shoulder from time to time to see what’s happening behind you. It takes a bit of practice to stay your course while glancing over your shoulder.
In case of an accident: The bicycle has no clearly demarcated place on Kenyan roads (with the exception of Thika Road, at the time of writing this), you make your place by being respectful and mindful of other road users, being predictable (hand signals) and wearing clothing that keeps you visible as you go.
- In the event of a crash, depending on how alert and injured you are, you are likely to be robbed of your possessions including your bike. always have your identity document preferably in a pocket in your clothing.
- These tips in the article You and a Car Have Collided. Now What? by Bike Noob can come in handy even in a Nairobi Bike-Car crash situation.
- Your bike may not be insured, make sure you have an idea of how much it would take to replace it.
Update July 2013: In Australia, the Victoria authorities introduced a new guide for road sharing, it can work here too.