Across South African cities, bicycles are rarely used to commute. Instead people use motorised transport such as minibus taxis, trains, buses, while others might walk.
Of course like many cities around the world, there was a time when bicycles were a choice mode of transport across South Africa – even for the social elite. This is a story that a forthcoming book called Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience tells – albeit only about Johannesburg.
While the old utility story of bicycles in South Africa might be largely forgotten, there are still some echoes of that past.
In Cape Town, Lebogang Mokwena – also Cape Town’s Bicycle Mayor – is teaching adult women to ride bicycles. This is remarkably like another initiative that took place in the late 19th century, when bicycles were a novel technology.
Other echoes occur in infrastructure. See below existing cycle tracks in Johannesburg developed in the 1980s, in the then independent municipality of Randburg. While there are clear signs of decay and they are headed to complete ruin, I did spot one person on a bicycle one day in 2017 using them.
Below, cycle and pedestrian tracks developed for school children in the 1980s – in a small town called Springs. The tracks as I saw them in early 2017 were largely overgrown. It is likely that some people on foot walk along them as do the still small population in Springs that cycles.
Below, pictures of a cycling school for children developed in the 1960s also in the small town, Springs. The school now lies dormant.
Can the past reconnect with the present? Can the former more vibrant cycling cultures in South African urban centres return? Policy-makers, planners, academics, activists in many towns across the country, certainly hope so. If experience in other cities across the world is anything to go by, that old simple technology can also make a comeback for everyday transportation at the edge of the African continent.