The number of bicycles per square kilometre can be an easy method of determining the level of development of any region in Kenya. Maybe better than GDP growth rate.
The higher the bicycle density the lower the level of development. To appear learned, the relationship is reciprocal. The argument is that the bicycle is a residue indicator of development, when it was a workhorse and status symbol in the countryside.
My dad owned one which he bought for 27 shillings. Bicycles were used for shopping, shuttling passengers, taking the sick to hospital, carrying luggage and a myriad other activity, including impressing your neighbours. Bicycle repairers thrived in the rural areas and were well respected, including one of my uncles.
Then came affordable Chinese and Indian-made motor bikes. The bicycle started a slow and painful death. It was a classic case of Schumpeter’s creative destruction. Interestingly, the bicycle resisted the onslaught of motorbikes by getting engines installed, just for a while. But like pagers before the onslaught of mobile phones, the bicycle’s golden age seems to have come to an inglorious end.
In rural areas, the motor bike took over all the tasks previously done by bicycles, donkeys and other beasts of burden. We still see a few bicycles even in the city, echoes from the past.
The death of the bicycle went down with the status of owning a bicycle.
Curiously, bicycles were owned by the elderly, motor bikes by the younger. Like the bicycle among the older generation, the motorbike became a status symbol with a noticeable negative impact on school dropout rates. Among the younger generation owning a motor bike became a rite of passage.
While some see the motorbike as a job creator, it destroyed the power enjoyed by elders in the countryside, more like ICT experts who took a lot of power away from CEOs. The impact of boys dropping out of school to run boda bodas may not be felt for another generation. One wishes they dropped out to manufacture motor bikes.
Today the bicycle has remained a symbol of a bygone era, a toy for children. But in a twist of events, the bicycle fought back in developed countries. It got into racing, such as the Tour de France. The horse before had survived the onslaught of the car by turning to racing and becoming a status symbol. We race at Ngong and the Kentucky Derby is famous globally. This raised the price of a horse above that of a car.
In developed countries, climatic change handed the bicycle a lifeline. Riding reduces pollution and aid physical fitness.
But I fear that in the rural areas of Kenya the bicycle might be gone forever. Few ideas in the rural areas get a second chance. That might explain why rural-urban migration is hard to stop; the vibrancy and renewal of the cities attracts the young and ambitious, away from the dullness of the countryside.
We should, however, not spend too much time mourning the death of the bicycle. It reflects the realities of technological change that we must come to terms with irrespective of our age and status in society.