Why did cycling disappear from the streets of Johannesburg? What are people doing to restore utility cycling? How can the city get cycling right in the 21st century—and help to secure a sustainable future?
These are the questions we ask, and answer, in Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience. Back our book project with the last bit of funding we need and help us bring this important story to a larger audience.
Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience challenges the inevitability of today’s Johannesburg, a city synonymous with highways and rush hours, cars, minibus taxis, and 4x4s. The book shows that Johannesburg wasn’t always like this: it once was a cycling city.
So far, we have raised most of the funds we need, covering the costs
of the author’s research, as well as editing and image rights to a total
of 40,000 Euro. Our printing costs have been covered by a single
generous donation. Now we need to raise the funds still needed to pay
for the book’s design, typesetting, and distribution.
By donating to this project, you can help to bring awareness to a broader audience of cyclists and urbanists, as well as everyone interested in how to make their car-dependent communities more sustainable and rewarding places to live.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
Is it possible to cycle with children in Johannesburg? That is, can a parent or other caregiver use bicycles for transport as part of their day to day activities?
As I often ride with our children – as does my partner – to their schools, nearby park and shopping area, I wonder about the possibility of seeing more like us on the streets. Some of the deterrents to everyday bicycling in Johannesburg are well known. To name two;
Concerns over road safety given the automobile friendly road design
Urban sprawl which creates long travel distances
There are many studies conducted in many different contexts that suggest these are important impediments – albeit with many qualifications. See the reviews e.g. (Heinen et al. 2010; Oosterhuis 2013). Indeed my route to drop off our youngest daughter at her nursery school is a meander. This means I add 1 kilometre increasing the journey to a total of 5.3 kilometres. I have chosen the route because it allows us to avoid interacting with heavy car traffic. At some sections I use side walks when there are no low-traffic alternatives available. The result is a generally pleasant ride back and forth. As you will see in the video below, we are also able to stop en-route to pick up some street side berries.
Ultimately in selecting the route, I am prioritising the travel experience over efficiency. As a result my route is best captured in the image at the bottom right hand side of this image from the Copenhagenize Design Company.
Of course it is possible to have a pleasant cycling experience (i.e. low stress over traffic safety) and a direct journey. Again the team from Copenhagenize Design Company has a useful graphic modelling bicycle friendly traffic planning in Johannesburg.
It is this combination (of convenience and safety) that I think is likely to lure more parents onto the streets with their bicycles in Johannesburg.
However the long history of automobility in the city and other emerging cycling cities is not to be underestimated. It has coerced and normalised car use to such an extent that even when short occasional bicycle journeys can be undertaken away from main arterial routes this does not register as a possibility. This is partly why the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association developed a bicycle commuter map. In as much as physical infrastructure (bike lanes) might accommodate bicycle use, new social-cognitive infrastructures also will need to displace those associated with car use. In doing so new social norms, habits, and connotations about bicycles and inversely about cars will emerge.
Heinen, E., van Wee, B. & Maat, K., 2010. Commuting by Bicycle: An Overview of the Literature. Transport Reviews, 30(1), pp.59–96.