World War II and some contemporary attitudes towards bicycles in South Africa

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.

This story and others about bicycles and transport, in the history of Johannesburg are told in a forthcoming book by me called: Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience.


Beavon, Keith. 2004. Johannesburg: The Making and Shaping of the City. 1st ed edition. Unisa Press.

Callinicos, Luli. 1987. Working Life, 1886-1940: Factories, Townships, and Popular Culture on the Rand. Ravan Press.

Cox, Peter. 2015. “Bicycles as Transport.” In The Organization of Transport: A History of Users, Industry, and Public Policy. London, UK: Routledge.

Heinen, Eva, Bert van Wee, and Kees Maat. 2010. “Commuting by Bicycle: An Overview of the Literature.” Transport Reviews 30 (1): 59–96.

Mohlamme, J.S. 1995. “Soldiers Without Reward.” Military History Journal 10 (1).

Oldenziel, Ruth, and Adri A. Albert De la Bruhèze. 2011. “Contested Spaces: Bicycle Lanes in Urban Europe, 1900–1995.” Transfers 1 (2): 29–49.

Oldenziel, Ruth, Frank Veraart, Adri Albert de la Bruhèze, and Martin Emanuel, eds. 2016. Cycling Cities: The European Experience. Eindhoven, The Netherlands: Foundation for the History of Technology.

Pucher, John, and Ralph Buehler. 2012. “Integration of Cycling with Public Transportation.” In City Cycling, edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, 157–81. MIT Press.


Learning from the bicycle past

The bicycle is in vogue. Rathbone (2013) argues that “the rise of the bicycle is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon.” In many cities across the world there are now advocates for utilitarian bicycling. City governments are re-shaping streets in order to accommodate the bicycle. In some cities in North America, Europe, Latin America and Australia, there has been marked quantitative increase in everyday bicycle use (Pucher et al. 1999; Hidalgo & Huizenga 2013; Bonham & Johnson 2015; Transport for London 2015). In other cities in Africa what is more evident is the policy interest into bicycling above and beyond user uptake (Morgan Forthcoming; Jennings 2015).

Yet in the late 19th century, the bicycle was as popular as it is now. In the late 19th century Johannesburg, the city was described by observers as being in the grip of a cycling “craze” and “mania” (Gutsche n.d., pp.6, 10).  Carstensen and Ebert (2012) write about the ‘golden age’ of bicycles in Northern Europe in the same period. At the time, bicycle users even became a political force. In Chicago, a mayoral candidate, Carter H. Harrison II, “launched his campaign by riding his first ‘century’ – one hundred miles – from his West Side home to Waukegan, Wheeling, and Libertyville, and back – in just nine and one-half hours” (Bushnell 1975, p.175).

Bicycle parade in Cape Town, South Africa –  late 19th century


The similarity between the late 19th century and the contemporary moment, is recently well captured by Friss (2016) who asks “there’s a buzz about bicycles! The number of cyclists is increasing, the streets themselves are changing in order to cater to them, and politicians can’t stop talking about them: Is it 1897 or 2016?”

Is there something to learn from the past that can support this renewed interest in everyday bicycling? Why was the bicycle as popular as it was in the late 19th century in many urban contexts? Why was the bicycle dethroned as an everyday form of transport almost everywhere in the world? But curiously, why in some spaces such as the Netherlands, Japan, and Denmark did the bicycle remain as a respectable mode of transport – albeit with reduced levels of use. These are some of the sub-questions that animate my PhD research.


Bonham, J. & Johnson, M., 2015. Cycling Futures, University of Adelaide Press.

Bushnell, G.D., 1975. When Chicago Was Wheel Crazy. Chicago History, 4(3), pp.167–175.

Carstensen, T.A. & Ebert, A.-K., 2012. Chapter 2 Cycling Cultures in Northern Europe: From “Golden Age” to “Renaissance.” In Cycling and Sustainability. Transport and Sustainability. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 23–58. Available at: [Accessed January 14, 2015].

Friss, E., 2016. The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s. History & Policy. Available at: [Accessed April 5, 2016].

Gutsche, T., Roaring Nineties and Darkling Days; 1891—1895. In Old Gold: The history of the Wanderers Club 1888 to 1968. The Wanderers Club. Available at:

Hidalgo, D. & Huizenga, C., 2013. Implementation of sustainable urban transport in Latin America. Research in Transportation Economics, 40(1), pp.66–77.

Jennings, G., 2015. A Bicycling Renaissance in South Africa? Policies, Programmes & Trends in Cape Town. In Proceedings of the 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). The 34th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2015). Pretoria, South Africa.

Morgan, N., Forthcoming. Space, culture and transport mode choice in socio-technical transitions. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand.

Pucher, J., Komanoff, C. & Schimek, P., 1999. Bicycling renaissance in North America?: Recent trends and alternative policies to promote bicycling. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 33(7–8), pp.625–654.

Rathbone, J.P., 2013. Car? Taxi? Helicopter? Latin Americans take to the bike. Financial Times. Available at: [Accessed March 21, 2016].

Transport for London, 2015. Travel in London, Available at: [Accessed April 6, 2016].