Naomi Mwaura, Mandela Washington Fellow from ITDP Africa, reports from Kigali, Rwanda about the city’s growing transport improvements.
4G Internet service on city buses? Stored fare cards to pay for transit rides? Smartphone apps to hail motorcycle taxis? Monthly car-free days? These perks may sound like standard fare for cities looking to enhance their sustainable transport bona fides in 2016, but the latest city to take the plunge may surprise those used to stereotypes of chaotic African mega-cities. Over the last decade, the Rwandan capital Kigali, population one million, has established itself as the poster child of the African sustainable city.
While the country’s reputation was tarnished by the horrific genocide of the early 90s, residents have to a large extent put that tragic history behind them, helped along by the city’s youthful energy: 60 percent of Kigalians are under 30. In turn, Kigali has made phenomenal strides. In 2008, it won the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor Award for its many innovations, like zero tolerance for plastics, improved garbage collection, and a substantial reduction in crime.
Flying into the city’s modest airport to attend an African Union Conference, I was curious to find out if Kigali would live up to the hype. Was it really as clean, safe, and well-planned as I had heard?
My first impression was one of rugged topography. Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills and its capital is no exception. As a result, as in many African cities, motorcycle taxis (motos) are a cheap and effective way to get around. But unlike many of Kigali’s neighbors, most motos here are registered and their drivers are law-abiding. I boarded a moto and unlike my experience in other African countries, the driver did not overtake with a risky move into oncoming traffic or tailgate the vehicle in front of us. Overall, I felt much safer than I usually do.
These safety norms didn’t come out of nowhere. According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of the traffic accidents in Rwanda are caused by motos. Safemoto, a social enterprise, has been working to reduce accidents with financial incentives tied to safe driving. Safemoto’s app allows a customer to request a moto using a smartphone, and if the customer gives the driver a good safety rating, the driver receives a RWF 50 (USD 0.06) bonus. The app also monitors driver behavior, helping to track whether a driver is using a phone en route. The best drivers are then connected with bad drivers, who can learn from their colleagues how to improve their safety ratings.
The government also has a hand in ensuring that motos operate safely. The Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) issues motorbike operational permits to the country’s two cooperatives—every motorcycle must belong to one in order to operate legally. Participating drivers get a sticker that displays the plate number, cooperative name, and engine number. If they commit any safety infractions, they must answer to the cooperative’s disciplinary team. In order to maintain a close working relationship, the mayor chairs a monthly steering committee where the city can discuss any issues directly with the public transport operators.
Motos aren’t the only way to navigate Kigali. There is also a bus system, which received a facelift in 2016 with the launch of the Smart Kigali initiative. In addition to cleaner buses, better customer service, and safer driving, more than 500 buses now have 4G Internet connections for passengers. In another technological innovation, the local transit agency introduced the Tap&Go smart fare card. Besides improving passenger convenience, the cards help cut down on ticket fraud. As of June, Tap&Go was accepted on 200 buses.
Even with an impressive transit system – BRT is on the way – Kigalians still need a respite from the daily grind. One Sunday per month, cars are banned from city streets. Instead, the pavement fills with groups of Rwandans clad in sweats and sneakers, walking, jogging, or stretching. People gather in Amahoro Stadium for free eye tests and general medical check-ups. Mayor Monique Mukaruliza hopes that these monthly breaks from driving a car will encourage residents to take up cycling and walking as alternative modes of transport during the rest of the week.
Luckily, Kigalians who opt for active transport have increasingly attractive options. The city has taken great care in adding greenery that serves both aesthetic and functional purposes. Kigali has gone beyond street beautification to implementing functional improvements such as footpaths and cycle tracks. To top it off, KN4 Avenue in the city center has been fully pedestrianized. I strolled myself, even at night, and although seeing regular armed policemen first took me by surprise, it ultimately gave me a sense of safety and security.
At the end of my trip, I was nothing but impressed with Kigali. The city has not only survived genocide, but also grown into a modern metropolis as the heart of the emerging Rwandan economy. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!