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.’

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.


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.”


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.