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.
At last I have completed writing my PhD thesis! I started working on it about 4 years ago. I am very happy to have arrived at this stage. It is now in the process of examination. Below is the abstract.
This thesis examines how symbolic meanings about everyday cycling are formed
and change. As a component of this question, it explores how place influences the
production of meaning about everyday cycling. While many studies have shown
how meanings and other cultural attributes influence cycling, there has been
insufficient focus into their formation in the cycling literature leading to calls for
greater understanding into their formation. Other studies shedding light into
production processes reside in different scholarly traditions, limiting the
possibility of interdisciplinary learning. Understanding how meanings are
produced and the role of place in particular, responds to queries in the cycling
literature. It can also support place sensitive policy solutions to promote bicycling
for transport. To explore these questions and objectives, a comparative study,
which examined how symbolic meanings about bicycling changed, was
undertaken. In particular, the study analyses how bicycling became a symbol of
social status and then stigmatised as a practice for the poor in Johannesburg, in
comparison to developments in Amsterdam, Beijing and Chicago.
Using a framework of analysis from transitions theory, the thesis argues that
meanings emerge and change through a dynamic interrelated process involving
actor activities, societal characteristics (of place), changes in place, cycling
experiences, and the nature of bicycling and competitor transportation systems. In
these processes, (in)equalities in social relations resident in place play an
important role in the production of meaning. Moreover, as meanings emerge, they
do so together with user practices, technology, infrastructures, social norms, and
other elements that constitute transport systems. Since there are multiple co-
interacting factors that produce meanings about bicycling, policy efforts could
with advantage pay attention to these and in particular how they assume
specificities in place. The thesis also breaks ground by offering a novel empirical history of everyday cycling in Johannesburg.
As soon it has been examined and any corrections made, I will post the url for the final version. But this will be on the website of the University of the Witwatersrand where I have been based.
A visitor to Johannesburg would be hard pressed to identify a vibrant utilitarian bicycle culture. Most residents perhaps imagine that not only is it impossible to create one, there also has never existed one.
On the contrary. Up to 1935 there more bicycles registered by city council than automobiles. See the figure below that I created from council records.
Prior to this then, it was routine for council and others to support everyday cycling. In 1901 the town council decided to support its employees in purchasing bicycles. In arriving at the decision, a committee of the council argued:
This committee is of opinion that a considerable number of the Council’s employees could with advantage perform their duties on bicycles, and think the best plan will be for the Council to grant these officials a fixed allowance and allow them to find their own machines (City of Johannesburg 1901, p.130).
Such financial support continued for at least the next two decades given the available evidence trail.
Later in 1905, the council voted and agreed to fund the construction of bicycle parking at a town cemetery. In so doing they argued:
It is considered necessary to provide some place where visitors to the Cemetery can leave their cycles, and we propose that a cycle rack should be erected near the main entrance at a cost of £20” (City of Johannesburg 1905a, p.1127).
In an earlier post, I showed that in 1935 the city council allocated cycling lanes along Louis Botha Avenue. The were described “as the city’s first experimental cycle track, a white line a few feet from, and parallel to, the left hand kerb, cutting of a strip of the road for the use of pedal cyclists” (Unknown 1935).
Johannesburg once had a vibrant everyday cycling culture. And just as it was created and supported by council, bicycle shops, enthusiasts, and many others, so it was destroyed. The story of the processes of destruction are for another time.
It follows then that it can be built up. Just as many other cities around the world are doing currently because they have realised the limits of automobility. Many formerly car centric cities (which also were bicycle cities at point) have seen their bicycle mode share grow remarkably. Chicago, a city that I have also been studying is a good example.
Bicycle mode share trends in Chicago . Sources: (Berkow & Falbo 2014, p.3; Vance 2015)
The bicycle is in vogue. Rathbone (2013) argues that “the rise of the bicycle is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon.” In many cities across the world there are now advocates for utilitarian bicycling. City governments are re-shaping streets in order to accommodate the bicycle. In some cities in North America, Europe, Latin America and Australia, there has been marked quantitative increase in everyday bicycle use (Pucher et al. 1999; Hidalgo & Huizenga 2013; Bonham & Johnson 2015; Transport for London 2015). In other cities in Africa what is more evident is the policy interest into bicycling above and beyond user uptake (Morgan Forthcoming; Jennings 2015).
Yet in the late 19th century, the bicycle was as popular as it is now. In the late 19th century Johannesburg, the city was described by observers as being in the grip of a cycling “craze” and “mania” (Gutsche n.d., pp.6, 10). Carstensen and Ebert (2012) write about the ‘golden age’ of bicycles in Northern Europe in the same period. At the time, bicycle users even became a political force. In Chicago, a mayoral candidate, Carter H. Harrison II, “launched his campaign by riding his first ‘century’ – one hundred miles – from his West Side home to Waukegan, Wheeling, and Libertyville, and back – in just nine and one-half hours” (Bushnell 1975, p.175).
The similarity between the late 19th century and the contemporary moment, is recently well captured by Friss (2016) who asks “there’s a buzz about bicycles! The number of cyclists is increasing, the streets themselves are changing in order to cater to them, and politicians can’t stop talking about them: Is it 1897 or 2016?”
Is there something to learn from the past that can support this renewed interest in everyday bicycling? Why was the bicycle as popular as it was in the late 19th century in many urban contexts? Why was the bicycle dethroned as an everyday form of transport almost everywhere in the world? But curiously, why in some spaces such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Denmark did the bicycle remain as a respectable mode of transport – albeit with reduced levels of use. These are some of the sub-questions that animate my PhD research.
Bonham, J. & Johnson, M., 2015. Cycling Futures, University of Adelaide Press.
Bushnell, G.D., 1975. When Chicago Was Wheel Crazy. Chicago History, 4(3), pp.167–175.
Hidalgo, D. & Huizenga, C., 2013. Implementation of sustainable urban transport in Latin America. Research in Transportation Economics, 40(1), pp.66–77.
Jennings, G., 2015. A Bicycling Renaissance in South Africa? Policies, Programmes & Trends in Cape Town. In Proceedings of the 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). The 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). Pretoria, South Africa.
Morgan, N., Forthcoming. Space, culture and transport mode choice in socio-technical transitions. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand.
Pucher, J., Komanoff, C. & Schimek, P., 1999. Bicycling renaissance in North America?: Recent trends and alternative policies to promote bicycling. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 33(7–8), pp.625–654.
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).
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.