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).

IMG_4171
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.

References

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].

 

 

 

 

What might have been: protected bicycle lanes in the 1930s in Johannesburg

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).

References

  • 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.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1935. Safer streets for cyclists. Rand Daily Mail.
  • Rand Daily Mail, 1937b. Women Motorists Safer Than Men: Statement to Main Reef Road Commission. Rand Daily Mail.
  • The Star, 1937a. Main Reef Road Should be 70 Feet Wide. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937b. Proposals for Widening the Main Reef Road: Report of the Joint Town Planning Committee. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937c. Proposals of Reef Road Commission. The Star.
  • The Star, 1941a. Road Traffic Statement: Louis Botha Avenue, Improvements Suggested. The Star.
  • The Star, 1937d. The Main Reef Road : Terms of Reference of Commission. The Star.
  • The Star, 1941b. Traffic Islands in Louis Botha Avenue Should be Reduced. Rand Daily Mail.
  • The Star, 1938. Traffic problem of the cyclist. The Star.