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.
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.
The chapter explores how experiences of cycling with others can create emotions of mutuality. Such feelings can encourage utility cycling. The chapter is based on auto-ethnographic experiences while cycling in Chicago.
The publisher – Routledge – has made the following short introduction available:
Cycling has been linked with personal and group identities (Popan 2014; Stoffers 2012; Fincham 2007; Ebert 2004; Carstensen and Ebert 2012; Edwards and Leonard 2009; Skinner and Rosen 2007). Skinner and Rosen (2007, 86) suggest that “identity [should be considered] as intrinsic to people’s transport choices.” They offer three models to think about the relationship between identities and transport. In the first model, identities shaped by social contexts sway transport choices. In the second, travel experiences generate collective identities that influence transport mode choice. In the third, the first two interact, such that transport choices are shaped by identities and in turn travel experiences shape identities.
Skinner, D. and Rosen, P. (2007) ‘Hell is other cyclists: rethinking transport and identity’, in Horton, D., Rosen, P., and Cox, P. (eds) Cycling and Society. Aldershot, Ashgate, pp. 83–96.
Stoffers, M. (2012) ‘Cycling as heritage: Representing the history of cycling in the Netherlands’, The Journal of Transport History, 33(1), pp. 92–114. doi: 10.7227/TJTH.33.1.7.
Stoffers, M. and Ebert, A.-K. (2014) ‘New Directions in Cycling Research: A Report on the Cycling History Roundtable at T<SUP>2</SUP>M Madrid’, Mobility in History, 5(1), pp. 9–19. doi: 10.3167/mih.2014.050102.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.