Protecting existing yet ‘invisible’ bicycling cultures

The bicycle is back. Governments at local, regional, national and internationally levels seemingly everywhere are promoting bicycling for transport. So are private entrepreneurs, grassroots organisations, passionate individuals and many others. These actors are after the numerous environmental, social, economic, spatial, health, and other benefits of peddling. Next month, many of these will meet at the Velo-city conference in the Netherlands.

Some bicycle promotion efforts seek to create new bicycling cultures or at least grow bicycle mode share from very low bases. Yet it is also the case that in some places, at neighbourhood scales within towns, or even on particular streets or roads there are what Koeppel (2006) called ‘invisible riders’ for whom as he argued “bicycling isn’t exercise, a hobby, or a statement” (ibid). It is simply a means of getting from a to b. See for example bicycle culture below in Salima, Malawi.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, one such set of ‘invisible’ riders exists along a corridor called William Nicol Avenue. See the video below.

Protecting these ‘invisible’ cycling practices – such as through the provision of bicycling infrastructure – maybe easier than starting from scratch. Scholars working in transition studies, show that the societal functions – such as ground transportation – are provided by what they call socio-technical systems (STS). Such STS are comprised of an array of diverse elements such as technology itself (bicycle for instance), infrastructures, knowledge, practices, policy and regulations, subjectivities, symbolic meanings, habits, industry (supply and maintenance) (F. W. Geels 2005). It takes time for each of these individual elements to be formed and align with each other (Frank W. Geels and Kemp 2012).

It holds then, creating new bicycling cultures especially from very low bases may take longer than proponents would like. However, surfacing ‘hidden’ bicycling cultures within contexts where utility cycling is believed to not exist, not only benefits those bicycle users but also could help to shift narratives. That is, it could improve cycling safety for those already bicycling (see video above for example) and provide proof of concept sites that could inspire a new generation of bicycle users and justify resource allocation.

Research in diffusion of innovations has demonstrated that innovations that are visible can gain wider use since potential users can more easily appraise them. This is what Rogers (1983, 232) calls “observability.” In this light, with reference to utility cycling, a recent study suggests that “sheer numbers of bicyclists increases the visibility of the activity which can influence individuals to try it” (Sherwin, Chatterjee, and Jain 2014, 11).

Failure to ‘protect’ invisible riders will inevitably mean that should circumstances change – such as improved incomes – this demographic will abandon bicycling. Observing such a trajectory in India, Brussel and Zuidgeest (2012, 184) argue “we witness in India a reduction in bicycle use among people with a higher income and education.”

References

Brussel, Mark, and Mark Zuidgeest. 2012. “Cycling in Developing Countries: Context, Challenges and Policy Relevant Research.” In Cycling and Sustainability. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Geels, F. W. 2005. “Processes and Patterns in Transitions and System Innovations: Refining the Co-Evolutionary Multi-Level Perspective.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Transitions towards Sustainability through System Innovation, 72 (6): 681–96. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2004.08.014.

Geels, Frank W., and René Kemp. 2012. “The Multi-Level Perspective as a New Perspective for Studying Socio-Technical Transitions.” In Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport, 49–79. New York, N.Y., United States: Routledge.

Koeppel, Dan. 2006. “Invisible Riders.” Utne, August. http://www.utne.com/community/invisibleriders.aspx.

Rogers, Everett M. 1983. Diffusion of Innovations. 3rd edition. Free Press.

Sherwin, Henrietta, Kiron Chatterjee, and Juliet Jain. 2014. “An Exploration of the Importance of Social Influence in the Decision to Start Bicycling in England.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. doi:10.1016/j.tra.2014.05.001.

 

 

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Where are the users of Johannesburg’s bicycle lanes?

In the last few years bicycle lanes have been built in Johannesburg. These were intended to stimulate a commuter cycling culture in the wake of growing road congestion and awareness of the negative economic, health, social and, environmental consequences of private car dependency (City of Johannesburg 2009).

Instead of immediately enticing users because of their safety advantage, the bicycle lanes instead stimulated more howls of outrage than actual usage. A popular argument was that it was a bad allocation of resources in the face of other more pressing needs (e.g. Madibogo 2016). In this line of argument, bicycle lanes were a luxury for the rich even though majority of people who already use bicycles for transport fall in lower income brackets. In spite of the flaws in the argument, it was used as a basis for putting on hold bicycle lane development (Cox 2016).

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A bicycle lane along Enoch Sontonga Avenue

The question then is how do we understand why the bicycle lanes did not immediately attract hoards of users?

Scholars in transition studies (e.g. Geels 2005), social practice theory (e.g. Shove et al. 2012) and the mobilities literature (e.g. Sheller & Urry 2000) have drawn attention to the systemic dimensions of transport. For these scholars, ways of moving about are conceived of as comprised of a range of different but aligned elements. These include the transportation technology, industries, social groups and institutions, infrastructures, symbolic meanings, habits, social norms, knowledge and subjectivities. For a transportation system to work all the different elements above have to exist. To take a simple example, cars could not be driven if there were no roads or users did not know how to drive them.

A second important insight from this scholarship, is that the transportation system is itself nested in place, meaning that existing characteristics of places shape formation of the system. Some examples of characteristics of places include social values, existing alternative transportation systems (and the different elements that go with), politics, religious beliefs, (in)equality, gender roles, topography, and economic systems – to name a few. To take an extreme but illustrative case, due to religious beliefs, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive cars – though there are efforts to change this (Taylor 2016).

With this perspective, some answers to the low usage of bicycle lanes are evident. To begin with, the various other elements that constitute a bicycle commuting system have not yet fully formed and aligned together. A forthcoming study by the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg reveals staggeringly low levels of bicycle ownership. More than 70% of respondents living, working or studying near some bicycle lanes connecting two universities do not own bicycles. For sure this is not surprising given the long history of hollowing out utility cycling in Johannesburg (Morgan 2017). As such City of Johannesburg officials merit significant recognition for mounting an initiative set to change the tide of history.

Secondly there are place specific characteristics that inhibit potential bicycle users. In addition to concerns about blockages (rubble for example) on the bicycle lanes, research exploring the reasons for low uptake of bicycle lanes found that “lack of respect for cyclists and the cycling lane[s], stigma of being a cyclist [and] lack of road safety for cycle users” (Crowhurst et al. 2015, p.11) as barriers. These factors were collaborated by another study which also argued that “potential cyclists may find the system difficult to navigate as a fully integrated and linked system does not yet exist” (Dos Santos et al. 2015, p.5). With the latter argument, the researchers were pointing to the limited extent of the bicycling lanes. Potential bicycle users are also held back by real and perceived concerns of personal safety (theft).

In conclusion, a perspective that conceives of bicycling more systemically and situates it in place can lend insight into the current low levels of utilisation of the bicycling lanes in Johannesburg. The bicycle lanes can then be understood as but one of the necessary elements required for a vibrant commuter cycling culture. A ‘build it and they will come’ approach which relies heavily on bicycling infrastructure will surely not work in isolation. A more useful perspective on the role of bicycle infrastructure is provided by Schoner et al. (2015, p.7) who “in a study into the relationship between bicycle infrastructure and decisions to travel by bicycle” conclude that “bicycle lanes act as ‘magnets’ to attract bicyclists to a neighborhood, rather than being the ‘catalyst’ that encourages non-bikers to shift modes.”

Given my exposure as a member of the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association, I am aware that policy-makers in the city of Johannesburg were moving towards a more systemic approach in supporting commuter cycling. There were (and are) intentions for example to increase bicycle access along the university corridor whether through bicycling sharing schemes or through rental models. The difficultly is that these ideas followed the bicycle lanes – they did not go in concert with building the other elements of the commuter cycling system.

More users of Johannesburg’s bicycle lanes will come when other elements of the commuting bicycling system are built and the place-specific obstacles are addressed. Even in the face of city council hostility to transportation cycling, I am aware that there are many other actors working to support the practice. Furthermore, elections come and go so Johannesburg residents could make other choices in the future that reduce road congestion and noise, clean the air, produce healthier residents and more.

References

City of Johannesburg, 2009. Framework for Non-Motorised Transport.

Cox, A., 2016. Joburg Mayor Mashaba’s shock move | IOL. IOL. Available at: http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/joburg-mayor-mashabas-shock-move-2067896 [Accessed September 14, 2016].

Crowhurst, R. et al., 2015. Users and Potential Users’ Perceptions of the Cycle Lanes and Their Intentions to Utilise Them. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand. Available at: http://www.juca.org.za/?p=817 [Accessed August 15, 2016].

Dos Santos, N. et al., 2015. Other Road Users Perceptions & Attitudes Towards the Cycle Lanes. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand. Available at: http://www.juca.org.za/?p=817 [Accessed August 15, 2016].

Geels, F.W., 2005. Processes and patterns in transitions and system innovations: Refining the co-evolutionary multi-level perspective. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 72(6), pp.681–696.

Madibogo, J., 2016. There won’t be bicycle lanes in Sandton‚ says Malema. Times LIVE. Available at: http://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2016/06/10/There-won’t-be-bicycle-lanes-in-Sandton‚-says-Malema [Accessed July 25, 2016].

Morgan, N., 2017. An inquiry into changes in everyday bicycling cultures: the case of Johannesburg in conversation with Amsterdam, Beijing and Chicago. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand.

Schoner, J.E., Cao, J. & Levinson, D.M., 2015. Catalysts and magnets: Built environment and bicycle commuting. Journal of Transport Geography, 47, pp.100–108.

Sheller, M. & Urry, J., 2000. The City and the Car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24(4), pp.737–757.

Shove, E., Pantzar, M. & Watson, M., 2012. The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and how it Changes, Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Taylor, A., 2016. A social media campaign to get Saudi women driving finds support but also mockery. Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/05/11/a-social-media-campaign-to-get-saudi-women-driving-finds-support-but-also-mockery/ [Accessed March 14, 2017].

 

 

 

 

Social values, politics, street level conduct and cycling advocacy

What is the relationship between broader social values and politics and traffic conduct? That is, can how different road users interact tell us something about the prevailing social relations in each urban place? And moreover what does this mean for cycling advocacy? These were some of the micro questions behind my PhD study. The study (now in writing phase) is exploring changes in social conceptions and practices about everyday bicycle use from a historical comparative perspective.

There is an existing literature of course that offers some insight into these questions. For example there is now an extensive body of literature that demonstrates how social meanings, beliefs, values influence transportation mode choice and practices eg (Stoffers 2012); (Aldred & Jungnickel 2013); (Ebert 2004); (Oosterhuis 2013). Some scholars have examined how different cultural values in China, Japan and the United States produce variable traffic safety outcomes (Atchley et al. 2014).

In spite of this theoretical backdrop, it was still something of a surprise to witness the relationship between broader social values and street level practices in different contexts. I have spent many pleasant hours at street intersections in Johannesburg, Chicago, Nantes, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Here I reflect on experiences in Beijing, China.

One one fine evening during the evening rush hour in Beijing, I spent hours at a street intersection enthralled with the choreography of different road users. See a short video below:

As I sat watching the interactions in November of 2015, I held my breadth waiting for an accident to happen at any moment. None came. As you see in the footage, the different phases of traffic lights are not strictly adhered to. Traffic lights appeared to be treated as offering general but not absolute guidelines. Often but not always users would make judgements on whether to proceed based on real time observations. If there was a gap, someone would take it. But even when such assessments were incorrect producing a potentially dangerous situation, other road users would give way. There was a graciousness palpable. A sense of consideration of the ‘other’. An Austrian living in Beijing expressed a similar observation in comparison to Vienna:

…one main practical difference is traffic regulations and how people obey them. People in Vienna tend to claim their territory in urban traffic regardless of what is happening around them. in Beijing, on the contrary, people on the streets have a good sense for each other and are always aware of their own movement as well as the movement of others. Ignorance of others in traffic just does not exist (Grisby 2013, p.65).

My claim here is that the history of social solidarities in China is present on the streets of Beijing.

What is the implication for efforts to promote everyday bicycle use in low cycling contexts? For me an important conclusion is that cycling advocacy agenda also has to grapple with the social relations that not only affect street level interactions but shape who uses (or not) bicycles. It means that cycling advocacy has to link with broader social change campaigns as relevant in each context e.g. in reducing social difference.

References

  • Aldred, R. & Jungnickel, K., 2013. Why culture matters for transport policy: the case of cycling in the UK. Available at: http://rachelaldred.org/writing/why-culture-matters-for-cycling-policy/.
  •  Atchley, P., Shi, J. & Yamamoto, T., 2014. Cultural foundations of safety culture: A comparison of traffic safety culture in China, Japan and the United States. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 26, Part B, pp.317–325.
  •  Ebert, A.-K., 2004. Cycling towards the nation:the use of the bicycle in Germany and the Netherlands, 1880-1940. European Review of History, 11(3), pp.347–364.
  •  Grisby, J., 2013. Beijing’s bicycle kingdom. In Sound of cycling; Urban cycling cultures. Vienna: Velo-City Vienna 2013. Available at: velo-city2013.com/?page_id=6492.
  • Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at: http://t2m.org/publications/yearbook/t2m-yearbook-2014/.
  • Stoffers, M., 2012. Cycling as heritage: Representing the history of cycling in the Netherlands. The Journal of Transport History, 33(1), pp.92–114.

Johannesburg is an ideal city for Cycling

Johannesburg is an ideal city for cycling. It holds the potential to be one of the most cycling friendly cities in the world. Here are six reasons why.

1. Weather

The weather is perfect. Summer is rarely boiling hot so a slower pace can ensure one is not drenched in sweat and moreover it is not humid. The rains in summer are very predictable falling almost on a schedule so it is easy to plan travel. Fall and spring are pleasantly mild, ideal for riding around at all paces. In winter, some gloves and additional layers of clothes will do the trick. It hardly ever snows and even when it does on the rarest of occasions, as the picture below shows, it is possible to still cycle.

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All of this was recognised a few years back by the City of Johannesburg.

2. Street form

The city has a lot of very wide streets and roads some with multiple lanes which could be “dieted” to make way for dedicated cycle paths.

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This means that the number of lanes could be reduced without affecting vehicle flows to give over to pedestrian and cycle paths. Alternatively, lane widths especially in suburban areas can be decreased and the same time, traffic calming measures such as reduction in speed limits and speed humps introduced. In some places, roadways have huge spaces between them and the adjacent built environment. This means that developing dedicated cycle paths which are segregated from vehicles – an essential device for attracting potential cyclists – will be in some cases much easier and cheaper than expanding roadways. This is an option not often available to other cities around the world so Joburg is lucky.

3. Spatial form

Everyone knows that Johannesburg is a sprawled City in  a sprawled metropolitan region. Some think that this is a hindrance to cycling because it suggests huge distances to be travelled by the cyclist. However, if we see cycling as part of a menu of mobility options not a replacement in all cases – this dispersed spatial form makes cycling the ideal solution for connecting to the ever growing menu of public transit options instead of the private car. A commuter can leave their home by bike, park it at the nearest transport hub and pick it up on the way back or continue the journey onwards with the bicycle. So commuter cycling in Johannesburg can be the ideal public transport partner. However, we have some way to go before this vision can be properly realised. There are limited parking facilities at many transport hubs and many services (trains, buses and taxis) do not allow bicycles onto them.

4. Commuter patterns

A majority of residents do not own a private vehicle. According to the 2003 National Household Survey, only 33% of households in Gauteng have access to cars (either through direct ownership or use of company cars). While this figure may have increased  since then, a subsequent study (2007) revealed that within Johannesburg only 32.1% of households own cars. This suggests then, that the majority of people use public transport or walk to their destinations probably because they cannot afford to own a car or do not have access to one. Given that bicycles are far cheaper than cars, there is therefore a huge potential for vast proportion of the population to use bicycles for part of their journeys.

5. Resident interest in cycling

There is a growing attraction to cycling. During rush hour one can easily spot a lot of commuter cyclists on their two wheels. The Critical Mass movement in Johannesburg has been growing in leaps and bounds each month. From a meagre start several years back, the last critical mass cycle ride was graced by over 500 riders including young children. Each weekend, some of the city’s riverbanks are visited by hundreds of cyclists and there is a seeming explosion of corporate and community based cycling races such as the 94.7 cycle race and Jozi Hustle. This suggests that meaningful gestures to this community of cyclists will entice them to make cycling a regular part of their daily lives.

6. Topography

A mix of hills and flat terrain allows for cycling to provide a modest level of exercise as part of the commuting experience. Some residents might prefer this version of exercise since it is cheaper than visiting a gymnasium and is conveniently embedded in the day – it not one other thing to schedule. However if exertion is not preferred, it is perfectly possible to carve a cycling route through the City involving limited encounters with inclines. A cycling map in development by the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association suggests some of these routes.

These are 6 good reasons I can think of as to why Johannesburg holds much potential to be a cycle friendly city. Of course there is a huge gulf between the potential and practical measures (such as dedicated cycle paths, integration with public transit and education campaigns on street sharing) that will entice the latent cyclists onto the roads. It is not an insurmountable gulf.

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Njogu Morgan

Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association