Why did cycling disappear from the streets of Johannesburg? What are people doing to restore utility cycling? How can the city get cycling right in the 21st century—and help to secure a sustainable future?
These are the questions we ask, and answer, in Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience. Back our book project with the last bit of funding we need and help us bring this important story to a larger audience.
Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience challenges the inevitability of today’s Johannesburg, a city synonymous with highways and rush hours, cars, minibus taxis, and 4x4s. The book shows that Johannesburg wasn’t always like this: it once was a cycling city.
So far, we have raised most of the funds we need, covering the costs
of the author’s research, as well as editing and image rights to a total
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By donating to this project, you can help to bring awareness to a broader audience of cyclists and urbanists, as well as everyone interested in how to make their car-dependent communities more sustainable and rewarding places to live.
How does South Africa’ s past shape current bicycle use?
One popular reply to this question is the influence of apartheid spatial planning. In their intent to spatially segregate groups according to racial constructs, apartheid planners left South Africa with sprawled urban forms where travel distances for instance between home and work are vast.
One example in Johannesburg, is the residential area created for the Indian population called Lenasia(Beavon 2004). Lenasia is located about 30 kilometres from the traditional city center and some 45 kilometres from Johannesburg’s financial district, Sandton. In this context as common sense and the cycling literature shows (Heinen, van Wee, and Maat 2010), it is difficult for the bicycle to become an easy obvious everyday tool for transportation. Only if perhaps as combined at the beginning and end of each trip in concert with public transportation (Pucher and Buehler 2012).
Yet there are other ways in which the past haunts the present. One less frequently considered but important deterrent is the social status of the bicycle as a mode of transport. While bicycles had in their early history connoted modernity and offered social status to users, eventually bicycles came to be seen as machines suggesting something less than about users or otherwise eliciting less pleasant notions. In particular for the black population, given the racialised political-economy of colonialism and apartheid, bicycles would evoke deprivation, injustice and accusations of inferiority. In other words, the two wheel machines would be seen not as tools that ‘dignified’ adults might use.
These and other ideas about bicycles emerged due to the structure of society and associated everyday decisions. One such particularity poignant act was in the aftermath of World War II, to provide starkly disproportionate compensations to returning soldiers according to gender and skin colour. To show the differences in financial assistance in these terms, Mohlamme (1995) writes that the state allocated “10 019 844 Pounds for male whites, 135 566 Pounds for female whites, 70 964 Pounds for members of the Cape Corps and a mere 5 795 Pounds for members of the Native Military Corps.” In these calculations, the bicycle figured, but as part of an ensemble of insufficient rewards to black soldiers. Callinicos (1987, 117) writes that, “black soldiers were rewarded with a bicycle and a letter of thanks, [while] white ex-servicemen were promised jobs and free further education”. Here, even though both white and black soldiers had equally put their lives on the line for the nation, their contributions were unequally recognized.
While the black soldiers may have found the bicycles useful in the context of a poorer public transport, as the pedalled to work, they would have also felt aggrieved. As a result, if circumstances favoured them, they might have then chosen not to summon feelings of injustice by opting for other ways to get work. Critically, this story, and attitudes towards bicycles would pass down in generations: for example, a documentary, aptly called A Pair of Boots and a Bicycle was released in 2007.
That bicycles may be shunned because of their association with trauma has been also demonstrated by cycling historians in other contexts. Cox (2015, 24) argues that in Italy after World War II, there was “rejection of cycling … since the bicycle was so firmly grounded as a wartime symbol that the population wanted to leave behind.” Similarly, but more broadly across Europe, Oldenziel and De la Bruhèze (2011, 39) argue that “the associations [of poverty and hardship] turned the bicycle into the antithesis of motorized transport.”
Yet if the current renaissance of cycling across many European cities is anything to go by (Oldenziel et al. 2016), the negative associations of bicycles that emerge in the context of trauma do not need to forever hold South Africa hostage.
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.
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.
Curb seperated cycle and pedestrian tracks
Curb seperated cycle and pedestrian tracks
Curb seperated cycle and pedestrian tracks
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.
Cycle/pedestrian tracks developed for school children in the 1980s in Springs
Cycle/pedestrian tracks developed for school children in the 1980s in Springs
Below, pictures of a cycling school for children developed in the 1960s also in the small town, Springs. The school now lies dormant.
A former cycling school for children
A former cycling school for children
A former cycling school for children
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.
Two recent developments in the road network in Johannesburg have elicited themes of historical changes and continuities.
A first one was the opening of a cycling and walking bridge over a motorway. The bridge is undoubtedly a boon for numerous people walking, some cycling and others riding/pushing recycling carts to and from two socio-economic spaces: a residential area called Alexandra Township and the other Johannesburg’s financial centre called Sandton. See images below.
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
From a long historical view, the new bridge can be read as a correction of an historical injustice. From the 1930s to about the 1970s, Louis Botha Avenue carried numerous people on bicycles. They were travelling from Alexandra Township southwards to their places of work including the then central business district of Johannesburg. In 1939 a newspaper reported:
The stream of native (sic) cyclists from Alexandra Township into Johannesburg begins to take volume every morning from 5:30. They are on their way to work….For over two hours, the density of this traffic hardly abates (Unknown 1939, 6).
In 1940, one observer of bicycle flows along the road in a letter to the editor of a newspaper said:
Last Monday at about 630pm, the writer counted in the space of only four minutes 93 native (sic) cyclists riding past the Astra theatre (H.A. 1940).
Yet in spite of this heavy bicycle traffic, the only safe cycling measure allocated was a painted cycle lane. A lane that was eventually abandoned. Louis Botha Avenue became mainly a motoring thoroughfare. From this long view then, the new bridge potentially represents a change towards an urban landscape less dominated by automobiles.
A second development while catering to public transport, also however signals lock-in of automobility. In an effort to relieve motor vehicle congestion, Johannesburg city council recently announced a road widening project on a road called Jan Smuts Avenue.
From an historical perspective, the 2018 initiative evokes a sense of déjà vu. In 1963, in anticipation of a motor car future, the then city council set aside money for road expansion involving the same Jan Smuts Avenue and other roads:
The city’s motor cars are increasing so fast…To avoid all these cars bursting the city’s traffic arteries, the Council has already agreed to spend another R14-million on a further 10-year major road programme, planned to start in 1964. it will include the widening and streamlining of Jan Smuts Avenue opposite and beyond the Zoo and other main arteries (Unknown 1963, 9)
Certainly, simply based on historical developments along Jan Smuts Avenue, the road widening project will but provide temporary congestion relief. In the 1960s, council may have not known that the extra road capacity would be a short term solution. There is however now ample transport planning empirical evidence and theory that the Jan Smuts widening project should have been a non-starter.
These and other tales will be contained in a forthcoming book entitled, Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience that I am working on. The book provides an overview of the history of utility cycling in Johannesburg from the late 19th century to 2016. It will be available later in 2018.
H.A. 1940. Native cyclists; Dangers of Louis Botha Avenue. The Star (Johannesburg, South Africa). 22 July.
Unknown. 1939. Native cyclists are controlled by Men of their own colour; Experiment promises good results. The Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg, South Africa). 5 July.
Unknown. 1963. Annual Report of the City Council of Johannesburg. Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg, South Africa). 9 October.
Streets in Gauteng are dominated by people using automobiles. This means that other users and types of uses are, in the main, subservient to those of driving. This is in spite of the low levels of car ownership. The 2014 National Household Travel Survey revealed that only 38.5% of households in Gauteng either owned or had access to a private car (Statistics South Africa 2015). In the democratic transition, there was heightened policy attention on the needs of people walking, cycling, using public transportation, as well
as other forms of locomotion (Morgan 2017). One approach, called Complete Streets, seeks to transform streets in Gauteng into spaces with multiple uses and where different users can co-exist (see for example City of Johannesburg 2014). What might such a transformational process entail?
How would users respond to invitations for new ways of inhabiting and moving about streets? How would the nature of street design shape user responses? This chapter considers these and other questions by examining a historical moment in the 1930s when policy-makers in towns and cities along the Witwatersrand mining belt were grappling with road use. With growing motorisation, questions arose as to how to accommodate all road users – not only those in private motor cars. At about the same
time, two municipalities, Johannesburg and Springs, decided to separate road users by offering them their own spaces. However, while Johannesburg, as far as records reveal, created cycle lanes on one road – namely, Louis Botha Avenue – Springs created a net-
work of cycle tracks. Johannesburg’s cycle lanes were separated from motor vehicle space by white paint while most of the tracks in Springs were physically separated by space and barriers.
How do we understand these different degrees of accommodation for utility cycling in the two municipalities? This chapter uses concepts from the literature on transitions to organise the analysis into the reasons for the different council decisions for Johannesburg and Springs in the 1930s. The chapter argues that in Johannesburg, because of socio-economic inequality and actor activities, bicycles and then automobiles were seen as symbols of social status (in as much as they were practical transportation tools). This was compounded by rapid urban expansion within a hillier topography. In Springs, while there was inequality which might have produced the tendency towards conspicuous consumption, this was moderated early on by the influence of Protestant religious beliefs. In turn, these religious beliefs were supported by low levels of economic activity and compact morphology and level terrain. These dynamics shaped council decisions in allocations of bicycle infrastructure and use patterns. I conclude the chapter by drawing out lessons for the contemporary agenda to promote utility cycling. Data-collection methods were mixed, involving archival research, examination of secondary materials including photography and film footage, and ethnography.
On the 22nd of January this year, the then Minister of Transport in South Africa released statistics of injuries and fatalities that occurred on roads over the recently concluded holiday. The data was grim showing that between 1 December 2017 and 9 January 2018 1, 527 people died. Yet the Minister found a silver lining since in comparison to the previous year, the total number of fatalities had declined from 1, 714.
This dark post holiday reckoning is not new. The historical record shows that it is part of what has become a ritual. The ritual usually begins just before the onset of holidays with policy-makers and other road safety proponents beseeching holidaymakers to drive carefully. Tips on safe driving are offered such as not drinking and driving, wearing seatbelts, observing speed limits, being courteous to other road users, and resting when tired.
Over the course of holiday season, reports in media emerge of growing number of road accidents accompanied by deep sadness and regret about many whose lives have been tragically cut short and others whose lives forever changed by injury. The country then gets on with the business of the new year – but only to repeat this pattern at another holiday occasion. While this ‘ritual’ maybe familiar, its long history and magnitude of injuries and fatalities even when compared to other contexts is striking.
A long history of road danger
As far back as the first decade of the 20th century there was public awareness about dangers on the roads. Newspapers ran columns bewailing they called the ‘motor peril (Unknown, 1909). For example, in an editorial, a newspaper argued that “…people are getting tired of breaking sprint and long jump records in avoiding maniacs in motor cars and of burying dogs which have fallen victim to the modern juggernauts of the Rand” (Unknown, 1999).
In 1938, the editors of a newspaper argued:
The public can only regard with anxiety and view with deep regret the number of fatal road accidents which never fail to occur whenever a public holiday, particularly a long weekend is celebrated (Unknown, 1938a).
Last year, while mourning the death of 22 people in a road accident, the then Minister of Transport argued:
Statistics further indicate that these driving crimes increase during peak traffic periods such as Easter and the Festive holidays with most of the crashes happening at night (Maswanganyi, 2017, p. 2).
While all road users are affected by the problem, it is the vulnerable are often most at risk. For example, studies show that road traffic injuries are one of the leading causes of death among children (eg, Burrows, van and Laflamme, 2010). Historical data also shows that pedestrians have been one of the most affected (Botha, 2004; Sukhai, Jones and Haynes, 2009). In 2016 “Pedestrians accounted for 38% of the fatalities with children being particularly affected” (ITF, 2017, p. 476).
Consistently high rates of injuries and fatalities
The second aspect that is striking is the consistently high rates of deaths and injuries on South African roads. See figure below which shows fatality rates per 100, 000 population over time.
In an effort to draw attention to the magnitude of the problem, road safety advocates have used various jarring metaphors. For example, during World War II, a member of parliament remarked on the fact that in two years, more South Africans had been killed and injured on the roads than in combat (Unknown, 1941).
The war metaphor was taken up in 2006 by another politician whose parliamentary role was oversight over national transport. He “compared the road death statistics to a war zone”(Unknown, 2006). Others have evoked the imagery of planescrashing to draw attention to the scale of the crisis. One comment in 1979 even referred to the road atrocities as “genocide…[that was] self inflicted”(Unknown, 1979).
The high rates of fatalities and injuries are even more evident when compared to other countries. Comparative snapshots of the rate of injuries and fatalities suggest that the trendline depicted in the figure above global averages. Data from 2015 (World Health Organisation, 2015) and early 2000s (Norman et al., 2007)for example, shows that the South African rates were higher than global midpoint.
In 1939, it was reported that “The death rate per 100, 000 people in the United States was 9.2., in Great Britain it was 7.9…[and] the Union’s [South Africa] figure was 24.8”(Unknown, 1939). This was probably an unfair comparison given the vastly different socio-economic profiles. Resources at hand shape not only the nature of response to road tragedies but also expenditures such as on infrastructure, law enforcement, and vehicle maintenance which influence safety outcomes.
Yet the poor road safety record in South Africa is observed to be high even when compared to other countries with similar levels of income. For example in 2015 the World Health Organisation estimated that amongst middle income countries, wherein South Africa was classified, 18.4 people out of 100, 000 population due to road accidents while South Africa’s rate was 25.1 (World Health Organisation, 2015).
There maybe some odd comfort in the fact that danger on South Africa’s roads – albeit only using 2015 information – when compared to other African countries is not that anomalous: Recently, a global report concluded that the highest risk of dying in road accidents was found in Africa (World Health Organisation, 2015). Furthermore, some countries on the continent even of similar income levels had worse rates of injuries and fatalities. See figure below.
An end to danger on South Africa’s roads?
Can South Africa’s woes on the roads come to an end?
Certainly overtime there have been numerous initiatives to grapple with the problem. These initiatives identified causes such as speeding, poor road courtesy, driving under the influence, and poor vehicle maintenance. They have also developed solutions such as in the themes of engineering, public education, and new regulations and their enforcement.
A few examples. In the wake of growing accidents along the Main Reef Road – then a major artery connecting towns along the Witwatersrand Reef – a commission was tasked to understand and develop solutions (Main Reef Road Commission, 1937). While the Main Reef effort was an inter-municipal deliberation, at the end of 1938 there was a unanimous call for a national investigation from a breathtaking array of interest groups who had gathered at a hotel in downtown Johannesburg (Daily Express Reporter, 1938; Unknown, 1938b). One such reckoning occurred in 1947 when then Prime Minister of South Africa called for a national conference in Pretoria on road safety (Motor Editor, 1948). In the post apartheid period, a most notable effort is the well-known ‘Arrive Alive’ campaign which was designed to focus both on changing road user behaviours and enforcement of regulations (Lamont and Lee, 2015).
Other countries such as Rwanda, South Korea, and Australia have had severe problems with road safety and taken measures that have reduced the carnage. This suggests South Africa also could end danger on roads – as it once ended the long enduring problem of apartheid. But what has been tried so far is clearly not working.
Botha, G. (2004) ‘Road Accidents in South Africa: 1990–2003’, IATSS Research, 28(2), pp. 78–79. doi: 10.1016/S0386-1112(14)60111-4.
Burrows, S., van, N. and Laflamme, L. (2010) ‘Fatal injuries among urban children in South Africa: Risk distribution and potential for reduction’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 88(4), pp. 267–272. doi: 10.2471/BLT.09.068486.
Daily Express Reporter (1938) ‘Bid to reduce road deaths in union’, Daily Express, 29 November.
Lamont, M. and Lee, R. (2015) ‘Arrive Alive: Road Safety in Kenya and South Africa’, Technology and Culture; Baltimore, 56(2), pp. 464–488.
Main Reef Road Commission (1937) ‘Report of the Main Reef Road Commission’. Transvaal Province.
Maswanganyi, J. (2017) ‘Address by the Minister of Transport, Mr Joe Maswanganyi, on the Occasion of the Funeral Service of the Twenty Two (22) Kwaximba Road Crash Victims Held at Manzolwandle Sport Ground, Ethekwini Metropolitan Municipality – Kwazulu Natal’. Department of Transport, Republic of South Africa. Available at: http://www.transport.gov.za (Accessed: 2 November 2017).
Motor Editor (1948) ‘Union road safety council being set up by government’, Rand Daily Mail, 20 July.
Norman, R. et al. (2007) ‘The high burden of injuries in South Africa’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 85(9), pp. 695–702. doi: 10.1590/S0042-96862007000900015.
Sukhai, A., Jones, A. P. and Haynes, R. (2009) ‘Epidemiology and Risk of Road Traffic Mortality in South Africa’, South African Geographical Journal, 91(1), pp. 4–15. doi: 10.1080/03736245.2009.9725325.
Unknown (1909) ‘The Motor Peril’, Rand Daily Mail, 5 November.
Unknown (1938a) ‘Holiday death roll too high’, Rand Daily Mail, 2 August.
Unknown (1938b) ‘Request for road safety commission: Unanimous resolution at city meeting’, The Star, 8 December.
Unknown (1939) ‘High accident rate in union treated with apathy’, Cape Times, 15 December.
Unknown (1941) ‘Roads ten times deadlier than war’, Rand Daily Mail, 3 September.
Unknown (1979) ‘Deterrent to murder?’, The Citizen, 8 January.
Unknown (1999) ‘The Motor Peril: A century of Sundays : 100 years of breaking news in the Sunday times, 1906-1931’, Sunday Times, 24 October.
Unknown (2006) ‘Transport war zone’, Business Day (South Africa), 29 June.
As I write there are a few free copies left for download here.
Below the abstract:
There is robust debate in the cycling literature on the relationship between infrastructure and utility cycling. This paper explores whether the provision of bicycle ways can initiate a bicycle commute culture. Drawing on insights from the transitions’ literature, it analyses developments in Johannesburg where, as of 2007, bicycle ways have been installed as a road safety solution. It examines in particular user responses to a series of protected bicycle ways, which were aimed at encouraging populations proximate to two universities to travel by bicycle. I argue that a bicycling commuting culture did not materialise as initially expected because other key elements of a bicycle commuting socio-technical system were absent, weak and misaligned. Some of these included negative symbolic meanings, low levels of bicycle ownership, limited knowledge and information and poor clarity on municipal laws that govern the misuse of bicycle ways. Formation of these elements was constrained by historical factors; embryonic bicycling actor–networks; a robust system of automobility; and context barriers, such as inequality and crime. These findings support other studies, which argue for a systematic and coordinated approach to utility cycling development. Finally, this paper draws attention to social, economic and political place barriers that often receive little prominence in cycling literature.
The historian of cycling, Carlton Reid (see, e.g., 2017, 2015), recently discovered that in the 1930s Britain commissioned the building of 500 miles of protected cycle ways. Some of these exist to the present day. In design these cycle ways borrowed directly from Dutch practices. Britain was therefore then as more recently in London, going ‘Dutch.’
In the same period, in South Africa, public authorities were grappling with increasing road safety concerns in the context of rapid motorisation(Main Reef Road Commission 1937). One solution, some municipalities looked to was separating different road users. With respect to people cycling, some seemed enchanted with notion of dedicated cycle tracks. And in particular, Britain’s protected cycle ways.
In Benoni, a local newspaper wrote:
The public of Benoni are acquiring a safety-first complex, and many valuable suggestions are being put forward…A suggestion made in the “Express” recently was that separate tracks should be made for cyclists. We have been able to secure a photo…of such a track opened recently by the British Minister of Transport… (Unknown 1935).
In the context of an inter-municipal dialogue (the Main Reef Road Commission) along the Witwatersrand Reef on road safety, a newspaper based in a town adjacent to Benoni, Springs, said:
The Main Reef Road Commission has recommended that a cycle track should be included in any new main thoroughfare to be constructed along the Reef…A similar scheme was adopted by Mr. Hore-Belisha (then British Minister for Transport), about three years ago, and on the whole has proved satisfactory (Unknown 1938).
None of these references, nor did I until revelations from Carlton Reid’s research, seemed to be aware that Mr. Hore-Belisha had in fact been borrowing from the Netherlands. Of the above mentioned municipalities by the way, only Springs implemented approximations of ‘Dutch’ style protected cycle tracks.
Fast forwarding to today, can planners in South Africa and elsewhere go “Dutch?” And more importantly, can they domesticate “Dutch” road safety solutions? One argument Carlton Reid makes on the reasons for the demise of the 1930s British cycleways is that they were built where they did not serve people travelling by bicycle (presentation at Velocity 2017 conference). This seems like a relevant lesson for today from the past.
Main Reef Road Commission. 1937. “Report of the Main Reef Road Commission.” Transvaal Province. Municipal Reference Library. Johannesburg Central Library.
Reid, Carlton. 2015. Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring. Washington, DC: Island Press.
———. 2017. Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Unknown. 1935. “Our Traffic Problems: Proposals for Solution Put Forward by Benoni Men.” East Rand Express, February 1.
———. 1938. “Springs Council Action Impresses City Authorities: Special Cycle Tracks Solves Problem.” The Springs & Brakpan Advertiser, January 21.
Why do places exhibit sometimes very different bicycling cultures? Some being predominated by cycling as a sport or for recreation. While in others, people may use bicycles mainly for transportation? In others the use of bicycles maybe as varied as can be imagined.
Why is it some places may start from a broadly similar appraisal and practices and then radically diverge over time? I am currently researching a variation of this question. The historical evidence shows in two neighboring towns in South Africa, high levels of utility cycling at the turn of the 20th century. On Johannesburg see previous post. These urban areas, Springs and Johannesburg, with similar origins as mining hubs are about 50 kilometers (31 miles) apart.
Springs sustained a reasonably robust commuter cycling culture for sometime. From the 1930s into the 1950s and 1980s Springs built separated and barrier protected cycling tracks. In Johannesburg however, there is scant historical evidence of catering for bicycle users on the road network – apart for some painted white lines on one of the major arterial routes.
In the 1970s, during the fuel crises, there was a genuine interest in rediscovering bicycling as amode of transport in Springs. See image below.
In Johannesburg however, while there were policy measures to reduce private motor car use, it was reported that residents generally stuck to their autos. Even those who stuck to their autos, largely failed to share journeys – in the form of car pooling (Clarke 1987, p.219).
How do we understand these different trajectories? This is the broad question I am working on. By sometime in October 2017 I should have an answer.
Clarke, J. ed., 1987. Like it was: The Star 100 years in Johannesburg, Johannesburg: Argus Print. & Pub. Co.