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.



Where are the users of Johannesburg’s bicycle lanes?

In the last few years bicycle lanes have been built in Johannesburg. These were intended to stimulate a commuter cycling culture in the wake of growing road congestion and awareness of the negative economic, health, social and, environmental consequences of private car dependency (City of Johannesburg 2009).

Instead of immediately enticing users because of their safety advantage, the bicycle lanes instead stimulated more howls of outrage than actual usage. A popular argument was that it was a bad allocation of resources in the face of other more pressing needs (e.g. Madibogo 2016). In this line of argument, bicycle lanes were a luxury for the rich even though majority of people who already use bicycles for transport fall in lower income brackets. In spite of the flaws in the argument, it was used as a basis for putting on hold bicycle lane development (Cox 2016).

A bicycle lane along Enoch Sontonga Avenue

The question then is how do we understand why the bicycle lanes did not immediately attract hoards of users?

Scholars in transition studies (e.g. Geels 2005), social practice theory (e.g. Shove et al. 2012) and the mobilities literature (e.g. Sheller & Urry 2000) have drawn attention to the systemic dimensions of transport. For these scholars, ways of moving about are conceived of as comprised of a range of different but aligned elements. These include the transportation technology, industries, social groups and institutions, infrastructures, symbolic meanings, habits, social norms, knowledge and subjectivities. For a transportation system to work all the different elements above have to exist. To take a simple example, cars could not be driven if there were no roads or users did not know how to drive them.

A second important insight from this scholarship, is that the transportation system is itself nested in place, meaning that existing characteristics of places shape formation of the system. Some examples of characteristics of places include social values, existing alternative transportation systems (and the different elements that go with), politics, religious beliefs, (in)equality, gender roles, topography, and economic systems – to name a few. To take an extreme but illustrative case, due to religious beliefs, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive cars – though there are efforts to change this (Taylor 2016).

With this perspective, some answers to the low usage of bicycle lanes are evident. To begin with, the various other elements that constitute a bicycle commuting system have not yet fully formed and aligned together. A forthcoming study by the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg reveals staggeringly low levels of bicycle ownership. More than 70% of respondents living, working or studying near some bicycle lanes connecting two universities do not own bicycles. For sure this is not surprising given the long history of hollowing out utility cycling in Johannesburg (Morgan 2017). As such City of Johannesburg officials merit significant recognition for mounting an initiative set to change the tide of history.

Secondly there are place specific characteristics that inhibit potential bicycle users. In addition to concerns about blockages (rubble for example) on the bicycle lanes, research exploring the reasons for low uptake of bicycle lanes found that “lack of respect for cyclists and the cycling lane[s], stigma of being a cyclist [and] lack of road safety for cycle users” (Crowhurst et al. 2015, p.11) as barriers. These factors were collaborated by another study which also argued that “potential cyclists may find the system difficult to navigate as a fully integrated and linked system does not yet exist” (Dos Santos et al. 2015, p.5). With the latter argument, the researchers were pointing to the limited extent of the bicycling lanes. Potential bicycle users are also held back by real and perceived concerns of personal safety (theft).

In conclusion, a perspective that conceives of bicycling more systemically and situates it in place can lend insight into the current low levels of utilisation of the bicycling lanes in Johannesburg. The bicycle lanes can then be understood as but one of the necessary elements required for a vibrant commuter cycling culture. A ‘build it and they will come’ approach which relies heavily on bicycling infrastructure will surely not work in isolation. A more useful perspective on the role of bicycle infrastructure is provided by Schoner et al. (2015, p.7) who “in a study into the relationship between bicycle infrastructure and decisions to travel by bicycle” conclude that “bicycle lanes act as ‘magnets’ to attract bicyclists to a neighborhood, rather than being the ‘catalyst’ that encourages non-bikers to shift modes.”

Given my exposure as a member of the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association, I am aware that policy-makers in the city of Johannesburg were moving towards a more systemic approach in supporting commuter cycling. There were (and are) intentions for example to increase bicycle access along the university corridor whether through bicycling sharing schemes or through rental models. The difficultly is that these ideas followed the bicycle lanes – they did not go in concert with building the other elements of the commuter cycling system.

More users of Johannesburg’s bicycle lanes will come when other elements of the commuting bicycling system are built and the place-specific obstacles are addressed. Even in the face of city council hostility to transportation cycling, I am aware that there are many other actors working to support the practice. Furthermore, elections come and go so Johannesburg residents could make other choices in the future that reduce road congestion and noise, clean the air, produce healthier residents and more.


City of Johannesburg, 2009. Framework for Non-Motorised Transport.

Cox, A., 2016. Joburg Mayor Mashaba’s shock move | IOL. IOL. Available at: http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/joburg-mayor-mashabas-shock-move-2067896 [Accessed September 14, 2016].

Crowhurst, R. et al., 2015. Users and Potential Users’ Perceptions of the Cycle Lanes and Their Intentions to Utilise Them. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand. Available at: http://www.juca.org.za/?p=817 [Accessed August 15, 2016].

Dos Santos, N. et al., 2015. Other Road Users Perceptions & Attitudes Towards the Cycle Lanes. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand. Available at: http://www.juca.org.za/?p=817 [Accessed August 15, 2016].

Geels, F.W., 2005. Processes and patterns in transitions and system innovations: Refining the co-evolutionary multi-level perspective. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 72(6), pp.681–696.

Madibogo, J., 2016. There won’t be bicycle lanes in Sandton‚ says Malema. Times LIVE. Available at: http://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2016/06/10/There-won’t-be-bicycle-lanes-in-Sandton‚-says-Malema [Accessed July 25, 2016].

Morgan, N., 2017. An inquiry into changes in everyday bicycling cultures: the case of Johannesburg in conversation with Amsterdam, Beijing and Chicago. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand.

Schoner, J.E., Cao, J. & Levinson, D.M., 2015. Catalysts and magnets: Built environment and bicycle commuting. Journal of Transport Geography, 47, pp.100–108.

Sheller, M. & Urry, J., 2000. The City and the Car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24(4), pp.737–757.

Shove, E., Pantzar, M. & Watson, M., 2012. The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and how it Changes, Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Taylor, A., 2016. A social media campaign to get Saudi women driving finds support but also mockery. Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/05/11/a-social-media-campaign-to-get-saudi-women-driving-finds-support-but-also-mockery/ [Accessed March 14, 2017].





Place and bicycling cultures

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.

Source: Springs Advertiser, Courtesy of Springs – History of A Gold Town

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.