What might have been: protected bicycle lanes in the 1930s in Johannesburg

In recent years, the City of Johannesburg has begun to install variations of protected bicycle lanes on some of the city streets. This has been welcomed by many bicycle users and advocates since they help to increase bicycling safety. Importantly it is a novel initiative within recent public memory. However if we take a longer view, one might argue that Johannesburg is continuing an abandoned conversation from the 1930s. At the time, the questions asked as now, were about how to improve road safety and who the were the legitimate road users.

One solution installed with great fanfare in 1935 were cycle lanes along an important corridor heading due north of the city centre – Louis Botha Avenue. A newspaper announcing the scheme in its headline proclaimed: “Safer Streets for Cyclists” (Rand Daily Mail 1935). The lanes were  demarcated off from the road using white paint. They were described as follows:

Yesterday there appeared on Louis Botha Avenue, from King Edward School to nearly the bottom of Orange Hill, the city’s first experimental cycle track, a white line a few feet from, and parallel to, the left hand kerb, cutting off a strip of the road for the use of pedal cyclists (Rand Daily Mail 1935).

At the time Louis Botha Avenue was one of the main corridors connecting Johannesburg to the northern reaches including the nearby capitol – Pretoria.  It also carried very high volumes of people on bicycles. One media report described it as thus;

The stream of native (sic) cyclists from Alexandra Township into Johannesburg begins to take volume every morning about 5.30…they are on their way to work….for over two hours the density of this traffic hardly abates” (Rand Daily Mail 1939).

In 1937 exciting proposals were floated regarding another important transport corridor.  Local authorities, planners and provincial government considered upgrading a heavily used road travelling east-west along the Witwatersrand Ridge – Main Reef Road (The Star 1937d). Initial proposals by a regional planning organisation – the Witwatersrand Joint Town Planning Committee – included completely separate cycle tracks and pedestrian paths. These were supported by a number of organisations.  The Safety First Association –  a road safety organisation –  agreed that as part of the upgrading proposals, cycle tracks should be built on both directions of the road. Here the progressive rationale was the number of bicycle users were increasing along that road so it was important to cater to them. The association proposed that if this were to be done then “cyclists should be prohibited from riding more than two abreast” (The Star 1937a).  Importantly it was “considered essential”(Rand Daily Mail 1937a) that the cycle tracks be “separated from the carriageway by kerbing” (Rand Daily Mail 1937a), for the “protection of cyclists” (The Star 1937b) .

During the same discussions, the Transvaal Automobile Association – went further beyond the scope of proposals pertaining to that particular road arguing that “all roads linking the towns of the Witwatersrand should be be widened to carry two lanes of vehicular traffic in each direction [..but also…]there should be cycle and pedestrian tracks on each side of the roads…[with]…these tracks…[being] 5ft wide”(Rand Daily Mail 1937b). These lanes were to “to be separated by a barrier”(Rand Daily Mail 1937b).

Imagine that? In 1937 a proposal for completely separate bicycle tracks, pedestrian lanes and motor lanes. Here was an instance of a proposal for a ‘complete streets’ future – to use the phrase nowadays that refers to street redesign that accommodates all users. Indeed a member of the Automobile Association, a Lieutenant Commander L.E.S. Napier,  argued that the “memorandum drawn up by his association aimed at suggesting the ideal road, a road on which it was almost impossible to have an accident except by wilful negligence”(Rand Daily Mail 1937b).

The  Lieutenant Commander may have been resorting to hyperbole to make a point but there is good grounds they were onto something; other proposals included constructing pedestrian bridges and subways, wide roundabouts at intersections, removing blind spots on roads, diverting faster moving cars away from densely populated areas through dedicated roads, and other innovative road engineering solutions (The Star 1937a; Rand Daily Mail 1937b).

After many hearings during the course of the year in November of 1937, a commission appointed to consider all of the options regarding Main Reef Road watered down the ambitions. While still calling for separate cycle tracks and side-walks for pedestrians along Main Reef Road, it provided a caveat:  “where conditions are necessary” (The Star 1937c).  This necessity was contingent on the availability of land alongside the road (Ibid).  It did however step beyond Main Reef Road to consider other roads in the greater Johannesburg area. It recommended that “a cycle track should be included in any new main thoroughfare to be constructed along the Reef”(The Star 1938). Wow.

It is not clear what happened in greater Johannesburg – that is how each of the different municipalities interpreted or implemented the recommendations of the commission. One municipality near Johannesburg (Springs) did go ahead and erect protected bicycle lanes on its streets. The Chief Traffic Officer of the City of Johannesburg at the time  – a Colonel Hayton – was reported in early 1938 to think positively of protected bicycle tracks. However mirroring the sentiments echoed by the commission looking into the modifications of Main Reef Road, he thought such an undertaking would be difficult to do given the road engineering requirements, disruptions to motor traffic and moreover if they were to be done, would only be suitable for roads carrying large volumes of bicycle traffic such as Louis Botha Avenue (The Star 1938). He said “the question [of providing fully separated cycle lanes] is worth investigation”(The Star 1938).

While there may have been ‘investigations,’  in 1941 the bicycle lanes on Louis Botha Avenue had still not been upgraded to protected bicycle lanes. A council committee investigating traffic patterns on this road found that “although the Council had carefully marked one traffic lane for cycles and two for other vehicles, about 60 per cent of motorists using the avenue disregarded the lines and straddled the lanes” (The Star 1941a).

Moreover bicycle users increasingly came to be seen as interlopers on the streets.  In a letter to the editor of a newspaper, one person wished that the “Municipal Traffic Department [could] make[…] effort to control the great volume of bicycle traffic which streams northwards along Louis Botha Avenue from about 5:30pm every day” (H.A. 1940). Later in late 1941,  a chairman of the Transvaal division of the Automobile Association complained that “…it was impossible to keep cyclists in single file…this narrowed down the room for ordinary traffic”(The Star 1941b). Here bicycle users were seen as not part of ‘ordinary’ traffic.

The evidence I have followed shows that henceforth the pattern of marginalising bicycle users in Johannesburg through decisions on infrastructure allocation, in public discourse, in legal decisions and so on continued from 1941….until the the post apartheid moment. What would have happened if 80 years ago the recommendations of the Main Reef Road Commission had been implemented in Johannesburg? For sure bicycle users, pedestrians, wheel chair users and others might have been safer in the streets. And it would not be hard to imagine that the city street design might have looked a little like many cities in the Netherlands – the everyday bicycling nation of the world (Fishman 2016).

References

  • Fishman, E., 2016. Cycling as transport. Transport Reviews, 36(1), pp.1–8.
  • H.A., 1940. Native cyclists; Dangers of Louis Botha Avenue. The Star.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1937a. Islands on Main Road Critised: Traffic Jam Talk by Members of Commission. Rand Daily Mail.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1939. Native cyclists are controlled by Men of their own colour; Experiment promises good results. The Rand Daily Mail.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1935. Safer streets for cyclists. Rand Daily Mail.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1937b. Women Motorists Safer Than Men: Statement to Main Reef Road Commission. Rand Daily Mail.
  • The Star, 1937a. Main Reef Road Should be 70 Feet Wide. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937b. Proposals for Widening the Main Reef Road: Report of the Joint Town Planning Committee. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937c. Proposals of Reef Road Commission. The Star.
  • The Star, 1941a. Road Traffic Statement: Louis Botha Avenue, Improvements Suggested. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937d. The Main Reef Road : Terms of Reference of Commission. The Star.
  • The Star, 1941b. Traffic Islands in Louis Botha Avenue Should be Reduced. Rand Daily Mail.
  • The Star, 1938. Traffic problem of the cyclist. The Star.
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