Cycling with children in Johannesburg

Is it possible to cycle with children in Johannesburg? That is, can a parent or other caregiver use bicycles for transport as part of their day to day activities?

As I often ride with our children – as does my partner – to their schools, nearby park and shopping area, I wonder about the possibility of seeing more like us on the streets. Some of the deterrents to everyday bicycling in Johannesburg are well known. To name two;

  • Concerns over road safety given the automobile friendly road design
  • Urban sprawl which creates long travel distances

There are many studies conducted in many different contexts that suggest these are important impediments – albeit with many qualifications. See the reviews e.g. (Heinen et al. 2010; Oosterhuis 2013). Indeed my route to drop off our youngest daughter at her nursery school is a meander. This means I add 1 kilometre increasing the journey to a total of 5.3 kilometres. I have chosen the route because it allows us to avoid interacting with heavy car traffic. At some sections I use side walks when there are no low-traffic alternatives available. The result is a generally pleasant ride back and forth. As you will see in the video below, we are also able to stop en-route to pick up some street side berries.

Ultimately in selecting the route, I am prioritising the travel experience over efficiency. As a result my route is best captured in the image at the bottom right hand side of this image from the Copenhagenize Design Company.


Of course it is possible to have a pleasant cycling experience (i.e. low stress over traffic safety) and a direct journey. Again the team from Copenhagenize Design Company has a useful graphic modelling bicycle friendly traffic planning in Johannesburg.


It is this combination (of convenience and safety) that I think is likely to lure more parents onto the streets with their bicycles in Johannesburg.

However the long history of automobility in the city and other emerging cycling cities is not to be underestimated. It has coerced and normalised car use to such an extent that even when short occasional bicycle journeys can be undertaken away from main arterial routes this does not register as a possibility. This is partly why the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association developed a bicycle commuter map.  In as much as physical infrastructure (bike lanes) might accommodate bicycle use, new social-cognitive infrastructures also will need to displace those associated with car use. In doing so new social norms, habits, and connotations about bicycles and inversely about cars will emerge.


Heinen, E., van Wee, B. & Maat, K., 2010. Commuting by Bicycle: An Overview of the Literature. Transport Reviews, 30(1), pp.59–96.

Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at:


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.


  • Aldred, R. & Jungnickel, K., 2013. Why culture matters for transport policy: the case of cycling in the UK. Available at:
  •  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:
  • Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at:
  • Stoffers, M., 2012. Cycling as heritage: Representing the history of cycling in the Netherlands. The Journal of Transport History, 33(1), pp.92–114.

Satanic Bicycles

In the late 1800s, the bicycle faced enormous social, infrastructure and technological obstacles. It was not a given that bicycling would necessary become an acceptable practice as it did with enormous popularity in the 1890s in Western Europe and America. This heyday of bicycling – mostly recreational and sporting in nature – was called the golden age of bicycling. Terms such as “craze” “mania” “fever” were used in the popular press to refer to what seemed to many social observers as some kind of social madness.

So against this background, I found it extremely funny to read what some religious people thought of bicycling. Robert A Smith in what is turning our to be a rather entertaining book, A Social History of the Bicycle: Its Early Life and Times in America, quotes a preacher one Sunday morning in 1896 in Baltimore, United States, saying the following :

“These bladder-wheeled bicycles are diabolical devices of the demon of darkness. They are contrivances to trap the feet of the unwary and skin the nose of the innocent. They are full of guile and deceit. When you think you have broken one to ride and subdued its wild and Satanic nature, behold it bucketh you off in the road and teareth a great hole in your pants. Look not on the bike when it bloweth upon its wheels, for at last it bucketh like a bronco and hurteth like thunder. Who has skinned legs? Who has a bloody nose? Who has ripped breeches? They that dally along with the bicycle” (1-2).

This was the monster at stake:

High Wheeler
High Wheeler

Nowadays one at least does not hear such negative descriptions from the religious community about the bicycle. At least I have not yet.

Chicago is increasingly a bicycle friendly City

The new lanes help a lot:

Protected bi-directional lane in Chicago

So do the emerging innovative beautiful bike parking forms such as this one:

Corrals in Andersonville

And this one:







And of course the brand new bike share scheme called Divvy:

Divvy bikes in the loop

And when you need to take a break from all the peddling you might find a parklet such as this one:

Parklet in Andersonville

Or if you need a coffee and fix your bike – at the same time, then head over to Heritage Bicycles.

I will be watching Chicago’ evolution.