An inquiry into changes in everyday bicycling cultures: The case of Johannesburg in conversation with Amsterdam, Beijing and Chicago

At last I have completed writing my PhD thesis! I started working on it about 4 years ago. I am very happy to have arrived at this stage. It is now in the process of examination. Below is the abstract.

This thesis examines how symbolic meanings about everyday cycling are formed
and change. As a component of this question, it explores how place influences the
production of meaning about everyday cycling. While many studies have shown
how meanings and other cultural attributes influence cycling, there has been
insufficient focus into their formation in the cycling literature leading to calls for
greater understanding into their formation. Other studies shedding light into
production processes reside in different scholarly traditions, limiting the
possibility of interdisciplinary learning. Understanding how meanings are
produced and the role of place in particular, responds to queries in the cycling
literature. It can also support place sensitive policy solutions to promote bicycling
for transport. To explore these questions and objectives, a comparative study,
which examined how symbolic meanings about bicycling changed, was
undertaken. In particular, the study analyses how bicycling became a symbol of
social status and then stigmatised as a practice for the poor in Johannesburg, in
comparison to developments in Amsterdam, Beijing and Chicago.
Using a framework of analysis from transitions theory, the thesis argues that
meanings emerge and change through a dynamic interrelated process involving
actor activities, societal characteristics (of place), changes in place, cycling
experiences, and the nature of bicycling and competitor transportation systems. In
these processes, (in)equalities in social relations resident in place play an
important role in the production of meaning. Moreover, as meanings emerge, they
do so together with user practices, technology, infrastructures, social norms, and
other elements that constitute transport systems. Since there are multiple co-
interacting factors that produce meanings about bicycling, policy efforts could
with advantage pay attention to these and in particular how they assume
specificities in place. The thesis also breaks ground by offering a novel empirical history of everyday cycling in Johannesburg.

As soon it has been examined and any corrections made, I will post the url for the final version. But this will be on the website of the University of the Witwatersrand where I have been based.

Social values, politics, street level conduct and cycling advocacy

What is the relationship between broader social values and politics and traffic conduct? That is, can how different road users interact tell us something about the prevailing social relations in each urban place? And moreover what does this mean for cycling advocacy? These were some of the micro questions behind my PhD study. The study (now in writing phase) is exploring changes in social conceptions and practices about everyday bicycle use from a historical comparative perspective.

There is an existing literature of course that offers some insight into these questions. For example there is now an extensive body of literature that demonstrates how social meanings, beliefs, values influence transportation mode choice and practices eg (Stoffers 2012); (Aldred & Jungnickel 2013); (Ebert 2004); (Oosterhuis 2013). Some scholars have examined how different cultural values in China, Japan and the United States produce variable traffic safety outcomes (Atchley et al. 2014).

In spite of this theoretical backdrop, it was still something of a surprise to witness the relationship between broader social values and street level practices in different contexts. I have spent many pleasant hours at street intersections in Johannesburg, Chicago, Nantes, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Here I reflect on experiences in Beijing, China.

One one fine evening during the evening rush hour in Beijing, I spent hours at a street intersection enthralled with the choreography of different road users. See a short video below:

As I sat watching the interactions in November of 2015, I held my breadth waiting for an accident to happen at any moment. None came. As you see in the footage, the different phases of traffic lights are not strictly adhered to. Traffic lights appeared to be treated as offering general but not absolute guidelines. Often but not always users would make judgements on whether to proceed based on real time observations. If there was a gap, someone would take it. But even when such assessments were incorrect producing a potentially dangerous situation, other road users would give way. There was a graciousness palpable. A sense of consideration of the ‘other’. An Austrian living in Beijing expressed a similar observation in comparison to Vienna:

…one main practical difference is traffic regulations and how people obey them. People in Vienna tend to claim their territory in urban traffic regardless of what is happening around them. in Beijing, on the contrary, people on the streets have a good sense for each other and are always aware of their own movement as well as the movement of others. Ignorance of others in traffic just does not exist (Grisby 2013, p.65).

My claim here is that the history of social solidarities in China is present on the streets of Beijing.

What is the implication for efforts to promote everyday bicycle use in low cycling contexts? For me an important conclusion is that cycling advocacy agenda also has to grapple with the social relations that not only affect street level interactions but shape who uses (or not) bicycles. It means that cycling advocacy has to link with broader social change campaigns as relevant in each context e.g. in reducing social difference.


  • Aldred, R. & Jungnickel, K., 2013. Why culture matters for transport policy: the case of cycling in the UK. Available at:
  •  Atchley, P., Shi, J. & Yamamoto, T., 2014. Cultural foundations of safety culture: A comparison of traffic safety culture in China, Japan and the United States. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 26, Part B, pp.317–325.
  •  Ebert, A.-K., 2004. Cycling towards the nation:the use of the bicycle in Germany and the Netherlands, 1880-1940. European Review of History, 11(3), pp.347–364.
  •  Grisby, J., 2013. Beijing’s bicycle kingdom. In Sound of cycling; Urban cycling cultures. Vienna: Velo-City Vienna 2013. Available at:
  • Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at:
  • Stoffers, M., 2012. Cycling as heritage: Representing the history of cycling in the Netherlands. The Journal of Transport History, 33(1), pp.92–114.