Pikipiki swarm will have a sting

There has been a huge increase in the number of motorcycles in Kenya in recent years.   The arrival of cheap pikipikis from China,  combined with more moderate taxes and massive latent demand for boda-boda services,  has turned a market of a few hundred into many thousands per year.

But If you think there are a lot of bikes now, be very, very sure that you ain’t seen nothing yet. Kenya is still just getting started, with a first flush of new bikes.  Soon that will generate a local second-hand market and it won’t be long before mitumba pikipikis open up a price bracket for another and even bigger socio-economic cadre.   We’re in for a whole new transport (and traffic!) phenomenon.

And we can take a look at that future right now.  Many major cities in the Far East have more than a million motorcycles…each! And if you don’t want to go that far to find out, then take a trip to Kampala where motorcycles are not just a major presence already – they are the dominant traffic element, both in numbers and in self-granted right of way.

The prediction for Kenya is that before the next Olympics, motorcycle imports will outnumber the volumes of all other vehicle imports put together.  And they will not only clog the roads but also rule the roads, through a system not unlike a labour union.

Up to now, bicycles and motorcycles have been regarded as second-class citizens.  Four-wheel motorists have treated them with disdain and sometimes lethal disregard.  By dint of both numbers and physical strength (a collision is a dent for one and death for the other) riders have had to get out of the way of drivers.

This status quo, combined with the incompetence and inexperience of piki pilots in the first flush of the boda boda boom, led to an horrendous casualty count for riders (visit the casualty department of the local hospital in any piki mecca  on any day and you’ll see what I mean).

But as Kampala is finding out, that pattern changes when the numbers do.  The boda boda brigade becomes a brotherhood, and when one goes down the rest are on the scene in an instant to administer deterrent “justice”…often involving corporal punishment for person they decide is the culprit.  The default judgement is that  the four-wheeled vehicle is always at fault, so  it becomes the responsibility of drivers to keep out of the way of riders.

Be in no doubt that Kenya will go the same way, as soon as the number of pikis reaches a critical mass.  Which is some places it already has, and in others it soon will.

Meanwhile, the problem of the low psychological status of a motorcycle is something that both drivers and riders must co-operatively address.

In law, motorcycles have much the same status and roadspace rights as a car, and should be treated with respect and consideration.   But the same law prohibits overtaking on the inside or driving/riding between lanes of traffic.  Neither riders nor drivers can have it both ways.     

Perhaps more important than the rights and wrongs, however the balance between rights and responsibilities works out in practice, bear in mind that, in a car, if you have to slam on your brakes you might skid, you might even go off course and even hit something, like a kerb or another car.  The  probability is that nothing more than your temper, or your pride, or your wing will be dented by the time you come to a halt and the crisis is over.

If you did the same thing on a motorbike, in exactly the same situation with exactly the same consequences, you could be dead.

Both sides need to  think well on that.

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