Can South Africa break the ‘ritual’ of road carnage?

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.

historicalroaddeaths
Historical road deaths per 100, 000 population in South Africa. Data sources: (Botha, 2004; ITF, 2017; World Health Organisation, 2017)

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 planes crashing 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.

2015middleincome
Historical road deaths per 100, 000 population in South Africa. Data sources: (Botha, 2004; ITF, 2017; World Health Organisation, 2017)

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.

References

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.

ITF (2017) Road Safety Annual Report, Books / Road Safety Annual Report / 2017. Paris: OECD Publishing. Available at: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/transport/road-safety-annual-report-2017_irtad-2017-en (Accessed: 21 November 2017).

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.

World Health Organisation (2015) Global status report on road safety 2015. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organisation. Available at: http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2015/en/ (Accessed: 20 November 2017).

World Health Organisation (2017) GHO | By category | Road traffic deaths – Data by country, WHO. Available at: http://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.main.A997 (Accessed: 22 November 2017).

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Cycling infrastructure and the development of a bicycle commuting socio-technical system: the case of Johannesburg

I have a new publication out in the journal Applied Mobilities.

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.

 

Keywords: Infrastructuretransitionsutility cyclingsocio-technical systemsJohannesburg

Going ‘Dutch’ in South Africa in the 1930s?

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.’

1930sbritcycletrack
First cycle track built in 1930s in Britain; an enthusiast tries it out on his old ‘high wheeler’

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.

References

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.

 

 

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.