Episode 130: Critical Mass Nairobi with Cyprine Odada

Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. Happy summer, everybody. We will have our July episodes and a Patreon bonus for you later, but for now we wanted to release this special ad-free episode into the general feed. It’s the kind of thing you normally only get if you’re a Patreon supporter. So if you’ve been thinking of signing up, please go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and sign up for just $3 per month. We really depend on listener support to keep the podcast going and growing, so thank you to everyone who has signed up so far.

Doug: Last month I had the pleasure of attending Velo-city. It’s a massive bike-related conference organized by the European Cyclist Federation. It’s held annually, and this year’s edition was in the Belgian city of Ghent. It attracted over 1,600 people from more than 60 countries. You’ll hear more about Velo-city and Ghent in upcoming episodes of the podcast.

Doug: Velocity is largely focused on promoting cycling as a sustainable means of everyday transportation. The sessions included talks by everyone from mayors and transportation officials to planners and activists. One of those activists was Cyprine Odada, the executive director of Critical Mass Nairobi. Getting a critical mass ride up and running and keeping it going is challenging, no matter the city, but it’s especially challenging in Kenya’s capital.

Doug: Traffic violence is a national crisis in Kenya, with more than 4,300 deaths and more than 10,700 serious injuries in 2023. According to the World Health Organization, traffic crashes are a top five cause of death for Kenyans between the age of 5 and 70, and the leading killer of boys aged 15 to 19. Of all the traffic fatalities in Kenya, about 12 percent happen in Nairobi. That’s more than 500 people killed each year in a city of 4.4 million people. For comparison, New York City, with a population almost twice the size of Nairobi, has half as many traffic fatalities. More than 70 cyclists were killed in Nairobi in 2020. And again, for comparison that’s almost three times as many as were killed in New York the same year. Like a lot of cities around the world, there’s a huge imbalance in terms of who gets road space. While more than 60 percent of the population navigates Nairobi on foot, many of the city’s roads are overly wide, with poor accommodations for anyone who isn’t in a car.

Doug: When Cyprine Odada organized her first Critical Mass ride in 2015, about 30 people showed up. Today, the monthly rides attract as many as 500 people. Through her tireless organizing and advocacy, Cyprine has helped get more people on bikes from different neighborhoods, ages and social and economic groups. And she has started to change the perception of who rides a bike in Nairobi, all the while building more political support for better bike infrastructure. One big thing: I want to acknowledge the youth-led protests in response to the Kenyan government’s proposed tax hikes, and the deeper economic crisis that’s fueling a movement that, as I record this intro, has been met by a violent police and military response. We wish everyone in Nairobi and across Kenya peace and safety. Now here’s my interview with Cyprine Odada, the executive director of Critical Mass Nairobi, recorded in June on the floor of Velo-city.

Doug: Cyprine Odada, welcome to The War on Cars.

Cyprine Odada: Thank you so much. I’m so excited. I’ve been watching a lot of your episodes on YouTube, and I can’t believe I’m getting to speak in your podcast.

Doug: Well, I’m so glad that we met here at Velo-city. What brings you here specifically to Ghent?

Cyprine Odada: I’m here to talk about my cycling experience as an African living in Africa, but not just as an African, but somebody who rides bicycles in the global South, and I’m here to share the good, the bad and the ugly.

Doug: So let’s talk about what you do back home in Nairobi. Tell me about Critical Mass, and what it looks like and feels like on the streets of Nairobi.

Cyprine Odada: So I organize Critical Mass Nairobi. I’ve been doing it for close to 10 years now, and it’s really transforming how people are moving on the streets of Nairobi. But beyond the transport side, it’s been really—it’s been amazing because it’s bringing people together, creating—forming communities, forming friendships, and changing the way people are living their lives. And it’s really wonderful. I mean, we’re not as big as other Critical Masses like Berlin that had 32,000 cyclists. We are only—you know, our rides only attract, like, 500 cyclists, but that’s momentous and something worth celebrating for Africa.

Doug: How do you get the word out to everybody? How do you attract those 400, 500 cyclists?

Cyprine Odada: Mostly word of mouth. And we’ve done that intentionally because we believe if something—if you love something so much, you will invite your friends and family. But we also use a lot of social media. We create posters and not really advertise, but we just share them on our Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and X and TikTok. So we create posters, but we also have WhatsApp groups. We’ve developed WhatsApp groups for different neighborhoods in Nairobi. We have a main one for Critical Mass, but that one is full, and we have a very long waiting list. So we developed WhatsApp groups for different neighborhoods. Anyone who wants to ride a bicycle and is looking for a community, they go on that WhatsApp group and then that’s how they communicate. But yeah, so the rides are mostly advertised on social media.

Doug: So let’s take a step back. How did you get involved in cycling to begin with? How did that become something you were interested in in your life, your childhood, as an adult? Tell me about that journey.

Cyprine Odada: So I learned how to ride a bicycle as a child, but that didn’t really progress once I became a teenager. A lot of women are not expected to ride bicycles in Africa, so I was never encouraged. I wasn’t discouraged. A lot of women are discouraged, but my father was very progressive, so he’d never discourage me. But I wasn’t seeing a lot of women and even men riding bicycles, so it never became a thing for me.

Cyprine Odada: I only started riding bicycles once I became an adult. I had just finished grad school. My boyfriend, now husband, and I had moved to Nairobi. That was in 2014. And I was so lonely and depressed, and I wanted to exercise, but I was broke. I didn’t have a job. I wanted to—I could not afford a gym. So I remembered that my husband had this old bicycle that he had come with from the US—my husband is American. So he moved with that old bicycle that his dad used for close to 10 years. And I just decided, I’m just gonna—I’m gonna risk it and use it.

Cyprine Odada: I remember trembling. I was so scared. Not because of cars, but because of people seeing me riding a bicycle. There’s a very big problem that we have in Kenya where people perceive cyclists or someone using a bicycle as being less important or poor, or just having a negative connotation. So I was afraid of friends seeing—not friends, because I didn’t have friends, but people seeing me riding bicycles. But I was so sad. I wanted to make friends, and I wanted to—I wanted something that could bring me joy and something.

Cyprine Odada: So I took the bike out. I rode around the parking lot, and I just got this really nice feeling of accomplishment. But I wanted to also move outside the parking lot. So it’s so funny, so the first day I rode outside the parking lot, I met these two gentlemen who were riding bicycles, and they just asked me if I could join them. I didn’t know those two strangers, but I joined them. I was like, I need to make friends. And that was the best decision I ever made, because I met them and they introduced me to other cyclists. And that’s how my journey with—my cycling journey began. And it has never changed. I have not stopped since then.

Cyprine Odada: And now transitioning to Critical Mass, so that happened when I started cycling with a group, and I realized that this was my family. Like, I finally met a community that I could call my family. And I wanted to keep that, so I started being very intentional about getting other people to join my family, my quote-unquote “family.” I wanted people to experience the joy that I now—the joy that I was experiencing. So I was very intentional about getting other people to join the rides. At that point, I even started doing advertisements on Facebook. But with time I stopped. I realized I don’t have to. People love it. They will introduce other people. That’s my cycling journey.

Doug: You talk a lot about joy, which is such a wonderful part of cycling, and I find it to be so true. It’s interesting in the context of Critical Mass, to which I think outsiders who have never done a ride before think of Critical Mass sometimes as this angry demonstration. If you’ve ever done one, you know that that’s not always true. It is this joyful celebration of people together. Talk about that joy, and why that’s so important in your version and your city’s version of Critical Mass.

Cyprine Odada: Yeah. So after seeing other Critical Masses, I was very intentional about making sure our Critical Mass is not canceled by our government or our city. So we packaged our rides to share the road. We would promote sharing of the road and inclusivity, versus us fighting with cars. In Kenya, cars would win. Whether we like it or not, cars would win. So we knew we would lose that fight. And we also wanted motorists to fall in love with cycling. So we show happy people—not show, because people were genuinely showing happiness, but people would by just cycling and showing how happy they were, naturally, some motorists would now start joining us. And it’s really beautiful to see when motorists wave at us and give us way and encourage us, and follow us and ask us how they can join us.

Cyprine Odada: And remember, we don’t really advertise beyond our social media platforms. So if you don’t know about us, you’re not going to find out. Or if a friend of yours has not told you about our rides, you’re not going to know. So a lot of motorists would chase us down. It’s like, “How can I join? How can I bring my kids? Where do you guys start?” So it’s really nice to see. And the most amazing thing that has happened is the traffic police have fallen in love with us as well, because we are respectful to other road users. So they give us way. At times, they close the whole road for us. We don’t ask them to do that, but they like what we do so much that they are willing to do that for us. City authorities, they also like what we do, you know, because we are promoting a culture of inclusivity, a culture of love and friendliness and, you know, compassion. Because we have children. Sometimes we have children as young as four years old, you know? Seeing a child riding on the crazy streets of Nairobi, it’s so empowering and encouraging. And a lot of adults are seeing that. And, you know, it’s working on their heartstrings. And that’s not necessarily like our tactic, but it’s working.

Doug: Talk about the relationship you have with the Nairobi government. I feel like every group of cycling advocates has a different story to tell about how they do or don’t get along with their city government. And you were worried, you said, about them shutting you down if there was this antagonistic relationship with other road users. How does the Nairobi government approach cycling and cycling infrastructure, to the extent that they do at all?

Cyprine Odada: I think we are very lucky that our city government actually approves of what we are doing, because they can see we are doing what they should be doing. They should be the ones getting people back on bicycles, not us. So by extension, we are doing their job. So we’ve been lucky. The city authorities support us. They don’t stop our rides. They give us—when we need space, they allocate us space. So we’ve been lucky at that end. We have not been financed by the city government. It would be nice if they did, but it’s a work in progress.

Doug: Tell me about your professional life too, because I think sometimes there is a division between—you know, I am not an urban planner, I am not a traffic engineer. And I came into this through a different way, through my job in media and communications. But you have a transportation background. Tell our listeners about that.

Cyprine Odada: Actually, my transportation background is very recent. I did, however, study urban planning, so I have a degree in urban planning. But my degree, when I studied urban planning, I was not taught anything on transport planning. I only came to learn about transport planning from 2019, and that was because I started riding bicycles. And I realized there’s so many things that urban planners are doing wrong and I have to talk about them. I have to try and right the wrong.

Cyprine Odada: And funny thing is at that time when I finished—I finished my undergrad and I was not satisfied with my profession. I did not feel like an urban planner. I never wanted to be an urban planner in the first place. My dad forced me to be an urban planner, so when I finished my undergrad, I gave him his degree and I wanted to do something else. I wanted to be a fashion designer. So when I did that—yeah, so I did that, and then I went on to do my masters and I chose a different path. I did project planning and management just so I could navigate to a different career.

Cyprine Odada: And that’s the time I moved to Nairobi, and I was lonely because I could not find work. That time, when I started riding bicycles, I could see the disservice that my profession as an urban planner was doing to people. I felt horrible. I felt really bad, and I denounced the profession. I told everyone, “Don’t call me an urban planner because that does not reflect what is on the street, does not reflect who I am.” And that—and I just felt terrible. But with time, I realized that I am in this profession. I need to be in that profession because my eyes have been opened. A lot of urban planners don’t have the experience that I have, don’t have the voice that I have. I have a big platform, so I realized I needed to go back and I needed to learn transport planning so I know what I’m talking about from a user’s perspective, but as a technical person as well.

Cyprine Odada: So that’s what I’ve been doing from 2019 up to now. Now I’m in—I’m doing an executive masters at the London School of Economics to enrich what I currently have, the knowledge that I have. And it’s been a great experience, you know, talking to engineers in a language that they understand. Because a lot of times when you talk to engineers and policymakers, they use jargon that doesn’t make sense, jargon that wants to shut you up because most of the times they don’t want to continue the conversation. So I wanted to learn this jargon so that when I’m speaking to a technical person and I’m addressing—I’m bringing up issues that are affecting people, I know what I’m talking about.

Doug: You talked about the chaotic streets of Nairobi. And I’ve never been there. I would imagine not very many of our listeners have been there. And there’s so much focus in the urban planning and advocacy world. Here we are at Velo-city in Ghent in Belgium, northern Europe. We’re always talking about Amsterdam and Copenhagen or cities like Helsinki. Let’s talk about Nairobi as not a city that normally gets the attention of the global bicycle advocacy movement, however you define that. Show me a street in Nairobi and what is changing about it or needs to change.

Cyprine Odada: Well, Nairobi’s cycling scene or landscape is very diverse, has lots of challenges, but we also have good examples. We have some roads that have really nice bike lanes, public walking infrastructure and some public transport infrastructure. There is a road called Ngong Road. There’s another one in a neighborhood called Kileleshwa. So those are really good roads with good infrastructure.

Cyprine Odada: And then we have the other side where roads are designed to keep cyclists away and pedestrians away. And a lot of people are killed on those roads. And I say it’s by design. And it’s not that engineers could not have included walking and cycling infrastructure because we have a lot of space. It’s who do they prioritize? Why would you give 12 lanes to cars and no lanes to pedestrians or cyclists? It doesn’t make sense. And the argument has always been, we need to reduce traffic congestion in Nairobi. Nairobi is one of the most congested cities in the world. We lose close to $20 billion USD annually from just traffic jams. And the solution to the traffic jams has always been, let’s widen the roads. Let’s build highways and expressways and bypasses. But we’re still stuck in traffic. With all those expressways, we are still stuck in traffic because what those expansions do, they make you—they make someone who’s not a motorist want to own a car. Because why wouldn’t I? I mean, it’s a nice paved road. I would want to own a car, you know? And those same roads are not being designed to connect long distance travel. Well, there’s some, but a majority of the road users on those roads are commuting short distances. So those people are stuck in traffic for a very long time on distances that they could walk or cycle. So it’s just a matter of prioritizing. We have lost the plot on who to prioritize in our transport system.

Doug: What do you think Nairobi looks like in 10, 20 years if your work with Critical Mass keeps up and that mentality shift keeps happening?

Cyprine Odada: I honestly would say there’s hope for Nairobi because a lot of people have fallen in love with cycling. A lot of people want to use bicycles, not just for leisure or for sports, but to go to work and to go to school. And they’re doing that already, even with terrible infrastructure. And I think the more people start, you know, cycling, the more the government will realize that, “Hey, we have to do something different because there’s a community that is growing and it’s bubbling. And one day this community will make demands for better transport system or working cycling infrastructure.” Yeah, so there’s hope for Nairobi and other cities in Africa. And a lot of cities are also borrowing from the success we’ve had with Critical Mass Nairobi. So two years back, I helped the team in Addis to put together their Critical Mass, Addis, which is doing fantastic. So there’s a Critical Mass Addis, there’s a Critical Mass Mombasa. So those are smaller towns in—Addis is in Ethiopia, but in Kenya, we have Critical Mass Mombasa, Critical Mass Kisumu, Critical Mass Busia. So what we’ve done has inspired other cities in Africa to start their own Critical Mass, and it’s really—there’s hope for Africa.

Doug: So final question. So here we are at Velo-city in Ghent, in Belgium. What do you hope to take back home from your many days here at this conference?

Cyprine Odada: Well, you want the honest truth? I mean, we’ve been doing—I’ve been organizing Critical Mass for a long time without any financial support from any organization. If we’ve had, it’s just printing t-shirts here, printing banners there, but not anything that can help us grow the organization. So I’m hoping to meet like-minded partners who would not really invest, but who would support us to grow what we have, what we’ve done so far.

Cyprine Odada: There’s something that we began similar to bike bus, but we call ours bike trains. So in 2018, we realized there are a lot of people who ride bicycles, but only ride bicycles when we have Critical Mass. And Critical Mass back then was only once a month. So those people were only riding their bicycles once a month, which is not what we wanted. We want people to ride their bicycles as much as possible. So we came up with something called the bike train. And the bike trains are essentially small Critical Masses starting from different neighborhoods across the city. And they are served by a bike train schedule, like a train schedule. So we have specific pickup times, specific pickup locations, and cyclists would wait on those pickup locations, and the train would begin from the farthest corner of the neighborhood and pick everyone as they move towards the city center.

Cyprine Odada: So my hope is to potentially find someone who would be willing to help us cement that, because we’ve already piloted it. It’s working very well. We have—each train has its own WhatsApp group, and the biggest WhatsApp group we have has 348 members. And that’s just one neighborhood. And we hope that we could make it into something that could inspire bike share or bike rental to encourage other people to commute to work. So that’s my hope. But other than that, I’m learning a lot. I hope to learn a lot from other speakers and other people at the conference. I think for me, this is like a little haven. I’m really loving meeting other cycling enthusiasts, and also just sharing my own experience. You know, like what we’ve done in Nairobi is not easy. It’s very difficult. It’s beyond difficult. But we’ve done it, so other cities can learn from what we’ve done. And I’m willing to share as much as I can.

Doug: And I’ll say just as an advocate, it’s inspiring to hear that everyone’s story, while specific to where they’re from and their own identity and their own experience, is everyone’s story is so similar in so many different ways, that fear that turns into joy, that turns into friendship, that turns into some sort of literal critical mass of people working to change their cities. So thank you for what you’re doing, Cyprine. Thank you for joining The War on Cars.

Cyprine Odada: Thank you so much, and I’m excited to be part of War on Cars finally. Thank you.

Doug: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. I’ll put more information about Cyprine Odada and Critical Mass Nairobi in the show notes. As a reminder, we depend on listener support, so please sign up on Patreon by going to TheWaronCars.org and clicking “Support Us.” You can enlist for just $3 per month, and you’ll get exclusive access to bonus content, ad-free episodes like this, merch discounts, and we will send you stickers. Thanks so much for listening and on behalf of my co hosts Aaron Naperstek and Sarah Goodyear. I’m Doug Gordon and this is The War on Cars.