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Opinions of Monday, 6 July 2009

Columnist: Atarah, Linus

If I become an MP I will bike

Linus Atarah

So the ritual continues. Yet a new government has come to power and yet new cars all over again for Members of Parliament, some possibly on their fourth one. Our culture of love for cars is now bothering on lunacy. Our obsession with cars is unsustainable and in fact, ultimately destructive.

It is preposterous to learn of the number and models of cars that were imported to celebrate Ghana’s 50th anniversary. For all we know additional cars may have been imported for President Obama’s visit – after all our leaders never lose an opportunity to have more cars anyway.

A central fight during the transition was centred on cars. Barricades even were mounted to seize cars and there was endless wrangle over whose car was official and whose should be returned and how many cars should the ex-President be allowed to keep, like kids fighting over candies. Then comes the High Priest of cars, MP for Subin, Mr. Isaac Osei, who says MPs need two and, even, a third one. That statement was a mark of irresponsibility at its climax.

The obsession with cars by policy-makers has switched their attention from a concern of how to cater for the ordinary people and, rather focusing on their own narrow personal comfort. In vital policy areas such as housing, our politicians have taken an indefinite leave of absence, or simply fallen asleep at the wheels but when it comes to possessing cars, they are suddenly awake, fighting to squirrel away as many as possible for themselves.

There appears to be to two extremes of mobility in Accra. One either has to go by motorised transport or walk. Completely left out of the picture is an efficient and more environmental-friendly alternative: the bicycle. But our road designs do not even give a second thought to that alternative. Everyone seems to take it for granted that public space is only meant for cars but that should not be the case.

A trip from Legon to Madina or even to Adenta, could easily be done on a bike but because of our love for cars, bicycles are frowned upon. And because they are frowned upon there is no protection for cyclists. They are sneeringly dismissed as irrelevant and, inconvenience to motorists and so for one to bike in Accra, one almost needs a life insurance because running over a cyclist carry almost no consequences.

The streets of Accra are totally clogged with cars, making it nearly impossible to achieve any meaningful business transaction by the end of the day. Given these circumstances, one would have thought policy-makers would be thoughtful enough to encourage cycling as an efficient way of getting from one place to the other. Instead the problem is being solved by throwing more cars at it. Every Ghanaian is fixated upon owning a car, and even if one manages to acquires one it is not long before he or she starts to think of owning a second and third one.

It is common in Ghana to hear people remark that a car is not a luxury, it is necessity. Our priorities have been entirely turned upside down and that is a telling result of the demonstration effect of officials’ obsession with cars. Everyone, rich and poor alike have now been set off chasing a mirage. Just imagine for a second, a scenario of at least, half the population of Accra going to work in their own private cars, in addition to the existing taxis and tro-tros. If MPs alone are allowed to unleash 230 and cars on the road every four years, how long can our roads and urban environment continue to take the stress in the long-run?

There is no denying the fact that cars are still a status symbol all round the world, but even wealthier societies – except of course in the USA – a bicycle has become equally indispensable. It is not uncommon to find an MP or Corporate boss in Holland or Finland lock up his car in the garage and jump on his bike to work if the weather allows it. One might counter that by saying they are doing it for pleasure, but in Ghana cyclists are even denied from doing it out of necessity.

A rise in fuel prices is almost always followed by a rise in lorry fares which affects everyone across the board. It leaves no option for people who would have preferred to bike in order to save money. But our road system does not allow it and the widespread anathema to bicycles does not encourage it either.

So I have an idea. Let all MPs come out in Accra and mount bicycles – of course, with helmets on. Ride through the principal streets of Accra. It would be a campaign to show that it is possible to move around on bikes, and in fact, desirable. And it shouldn’t stop there. They should be seen occasionally riding to have a drink in the local pub, or going to visit a friend nearby and, why not occasionally bike to work?. That campaign would help demystify the widespread perception that it is only the private car could solve all our problems and the MPs should take the lead in that campaign.

Linus Atarah latarah@welho.com