The Cultural Politics of Infrastructure: The Case of Louis Botha Avenue in Johannesburg, South Africa

Tomorrow, I will be presenting a seminar at the University of the Witwatersrand on the appearance and disappearance of a cycle lane on one of Johannesburg’s thoroughfares.

Below is an abstract of the talk which is based on a chapter in a book critically engaging with the global upsurge of cycling infrastructures (Morgan 2020). The book is due out January, 2020.

Cycle infrastructure, especially cycle tracks and or cycle ways, have commanded significant attention in cycle planning. They have, for some, been seen as a ‘silver bullet’ to promote utility cycling since when separated from vehicle flows, they can shield people cycling from motor traffic improving road safety. A range of studies have however begun to question the causal relationships in stimulating cycling. Others following the notion of co-evolution between technology and society and therefore setting aside the concept of ‘neutral’ technologies, point to the possibilities of infrastructures doing other ‘work.’

This paper follows these critical lines of inquiry about cycle infrastructure to examine an historical case of cycle lane provision in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1935, a cycle lane was allocated on a road called Louis Botha Avenue. While the road remained an important cycling corridor well into the 1960s, and there were policy recommendations for such high volume corridors to have barrier protected cycle tracks, the cycle infrastructure was never upgraded and was eventually abandoned. How do we make sense of the appearance of the cycle lane as well as the failure to upgrade the facility? This paper draws on insights from science and technology studies for analysis. It argues that the cycle lane as well as improvement failure were ultimately manifestations of processes through which the rights of cycle users on Louis Botha Avenue were in question, as were also their rights of residence in an area called Alexandra Township adjacent to the road.

I look forward to showing the film clip below to illustrate the argument:

References

Morgan, Njogu. 2020. “The Cultural Politics of Infrastructure: The Case of Louis Botha Avenue in Johannesburg, South Africa.” In The Politics of Cycling Infrastructure, edited by Till Koglin and Peter Cox. Bristol, United Kingdom: Policy Press.

 

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How apartheid killed Johannesburg’s cycling culture

I recently published an article in the Guardian Newspaper which provides a sneak preview of the book into the history of cycling in Johannesburg.

There is undoubtedly much more empirical material and analysis contained in the book. So look out for the printed edition.

You can read the article here.

Fragments of the past

Across South African cities, bicycles are rarely used to commute. Instead people use motorised transport such as minibus taxis, trains, buses, while others might walk.

Of course like many cities around the world, there was a time when bicycles were a choice mode of transport across South Africa – even for the social elite. This is a story that a forthcoming book called Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience tells – albeit only about Johannesburg.

While the old utility story of bicycles in South Africa might be largely forgotten,  there are still some echoes of that past.

In Cape Town, Lebogang Mokwena – also Cape Town’s Bicycle Mayor – is teaching adult women to ride bicycles. This is remarkably like another initiative that took place in the late 19th century, when bicycles were a novel technology.

IMG_3511
Teaching women to ride bicycles in Cape Town in 1899

 

Other echoes occur in infrastructure. See below existing cycle tracks in Johannesburg developed in the 1980s, in the then independent municipality of Randburg. While there are clear signs of decay and they are headed to complete ruin, I did spot one person on a bicycle one day in 2017 using them.

 

Below, cycle and pedestrian tracks developed for school children in the 1980s  – in a small town called Springs. The tracks as I saw them in early 2017 were largely overgrown. It is likely that some people on foot walk along them as do the still small population in Springs that cycles.

 

Below, pictures of a cycling school for children developed in the 1960s also in the small town, Springs. The school now lies dormant.

Can the past reconnect with the present? Can the former more vibrant cycling cultures in South African urban centres return? Policy-makers, planners, academics, activists in many towns across the country, certainly hope so. If experience in other cities across the world is anything to go by, that old simple technology can also make a comeback for everyday transportation at the edge of the African continent.

 

 

Context and utility cycling: The case of Springs in comparison to Johannesburg

Introduction

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.

Read rest of chapter here

 

Social pressure as a barrier to mode shift

Cycling advocates in low cycling contexts often point to factors such as poor road safety, distance, and lack of access to bicycles as barriers to cycling uptake in their contexts. Certainly these are legitimate.

But is it perhaps also the case that other ‘invisible’ barriers such as social pressure are equally as important? During the course of my PhD research, I collected many reports in space and time suggesting that the gaze from others is as important in shaping transportation practices. Here are a few.

From Beijing in 2006:

Although I did save a lot of time while cycling, there are disadvantages to cycling. There is nowhere to park near my company, and I had to take a cab when meeting clients. What would they think of me if I cycled up to them?

From Chicago in 1999:

my whole family acts like I’m from Mars because I don’t own a car

From Beijing 1926:

….a university professor in Beijing ‘confessed’ in a letter to the editor of a journal that to save transportation costs, but also to comply with social expectations, he usually called a rickshaw to pick him up, walked most of the distance, then took another rickshaw to reach his destination gracefully (Moghaddass-Esfehani, 2003, p. 97)

References

Moghaddass-Esfehani, A., 2003. The Bicycle’s Long Way to China: The Appropriation of Cycling as a Foreign Cultural Technique, 1890–1940. In Proceedings, 13th International Cycling History Conference 13. 13th International Cycling History Conference. San Francisco: Van der Plas Publications, pp. 94–101.

The return of commuter cycling in Beijing?

Is bicycling for transport in Beijing on the upswing?

When I was working on my PhD thesis, part of which examined developments in Beijing, one story in the immediate market liberalisation phase was about the dethroning of the bicycle by the car.

At its peak, in 1980 the bicycle mode share was 62.6% of all trips (Zhao 2014a, 53). This is a staggering rate of bicycle use. By 2012 bicycle mode share had dropped to 14% (BUZA 2015). This trajectory is represented in the figure below.

newbicyclemodesharebeijing
Assembled from (Zhang et al. 2014, p.322; Rhoads 2012, p.111; Sit 1996, p.265; Zhao 2014b, p.3)

However, there are indications that bicycling may yet be coming back. News media have recently been using terms such as “craze” and “stylish” to describe the resurgence of bicycling in Beijing, and other cities in China (Bland 2017; Tatlow 2017).

 

This is a startling transformation. In November 1998, bicycles were banned from a street called Xisidong Avenue in an effort to relieve car congestion (Rosenthal 1998). Cycling was also stigmatised with driving considered the new status symbol (Lu Rucai 2007; Zhao 2014a). In an often quoted remark, in 2010 a contestant on a television show when queried about her willingness to ride a bicycle during a date said “I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on a bicycle”(Wetherhold 2012).

Colleagues who have recently been in Beijing confirm the pronounced ubiquity of bicycles. One said:

Almost every week it seems as though another bike sharing company has been set up in Beijing. There must be hundreds of thousands of people using shared bikes every day

In another instance:

I am amazed I am at the explosion in shared cycling in China’s cities. In one year it has changed dramatically; quite a reversal, with cycling now a really fashionable thing to do. In Beijing and Shanghai there are now about five or six companies involved in bike sharing.

Another said:

…A miracle that I wasn’t run over by a bicycle or silent scooter. It’s been a very rapid change, possibly since Njogu visited Beijing for his thesis…Several such companies are parking swipe-and-ride bikes absolutely everywhere, lots of smiling cyclists swarming everywhere (some not very experienced) and very worried pedestrians dodging them…

How do we understand this? More work to be done to comprehend China.

References

Bland, Ben. 2017. “China’s Bicycle-Sharing Boom Poses Hazards for Manufacturers.” Financial Times, May 4. https://www.ft.com/content/bfba9f6e-299c-11e7-9ec8-168383da43b7.

BUZA, Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken. 2015. “Dutch and Chinese Experts Develop Beijing Bicycle Plan | Netherlands Embassy and Consulates, China.” May. http://china.nlembassy.org/news/2015/05/beijing-fietsplan.html#anchor-Recommendations.

Lu Rucai. 2007. “Safeguard the Bike.” China Today 56 (1): 28–31.

Rhoads, E.J.M., 2012. Cycles of Cathay: A History of the Bicycle in China. Transfers, 2(2), pp.95–120.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. 1998. “Beijing Journal; Tide of Traffic Turns Against the Sea of Bicycles.” The New York Times, November 3, sec. World. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/03/world/beijing-journal-tide-of-traffic-turns-against-the-sea-of-bicycles.html.

Sit, V.F., 1996. Beijing: Urban Transport Issues in a Socialist Third World Setting (1949–1992). Journal of Transport Geography, 4(4), pp.253–273.

Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. 2017. “In Beijing, Two Wheels Are Only a Smartphone Away.” The New York Times, March 19, sec. Asia Pacific. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/19/world/asia/beijing-bike-sharing.html.

Wetherhold, Sherley. 2012. “The Bicycle as Symbol of China’s Transformation.” Atlantic Cities, June 30. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/the-bicycle-as-symbol-of-chinas-transformation/259177/.

Zhang, H., Shaheen, S.A. & Chen, X., 2014. Bicycle Evolution in China: From the 1900s to the Present. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 8(5), pp.317–335.

Zhao, P., 2014a. Private motorised urban mobility in China’s large cities: The social causes of change and an agenda for future research. Journal of Transport Geography, 40, pp.53–63.

Zhao, P., 2014b. The Impact of the Built Environment on Bicycle Commuting: Evidence from Beijing. Urban Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 51(5), pp.1 019–1 037.

 

 

 

 

Protecting existing yet ‘invisible’ bicycling cultures

The bicycle is back. Governments at local, regional, national and internationally levels seemingly everywhere are promoting bicycling for transport. So are private entrepreneurs, grassroots organisations, passionate individuals and many others. These actors are after the numerous environmental, social, economic, spatial, health, and other benefits of peddling. Next month, many of these will meet at the Velo-city conference in the Netherlands.

Some bicycle promotion efforts seek to create new bicycling cultures or at least grow bicycle mode share from very low bases. Yet it is also the case that in some places, at neighbourhood scales within towns, or even on particular streets or roads there are what Koeppel (2006) called ‘invisible riders’ for whom as he argued “bicycling isn’t exercise, a hobby, or a statement” (ibid). It is simply a means of getting from a to b. See for example bicycle culture below in Salima, Malawi.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, one such set of ‘invisible’ riders exists along a corridor called William Nicol Avenue. See the video below.

Protecting these ‘invisible’ cycling practices – such as through the provision of bicycling infrastructure – maybe easier than starting from scratch. Scholars working in transition studies, show that the societal functions – such as ground transportation – are provided by what they call socio-technical systems (STS). Such STS are comprised of an array of diverse elements such as technology itself (bicycle for instance), infrastructures, knowledge, practices, policy and regulations, subjectivities, symbolic meanings, habits, industry (supply and maintenance) (F. W. Geels 2005). It takes time for each of these individual elements to be formed and align with each other (Frank W. Geels and Kemp 2012).

It holds then, creating new bicycling cultures especially from very low bases may take longer than proponents would like. However, surfacing ‘hidden’ bicycling cultures within contexts where utility cycling is believed to not exist, not only benefits those bicycle users but also could help to shift narratives. That is, it could improve cycling safety for those already bicycling (see video above for example) and provide proof of concept sites that could inspire a new generation of bicycle users and justify resource allocation.

Research in diffusion of innovations has demonstrated that innovations that are visible can gain wider use since potential users can more easily appraise them. This is what Rogers (1983, 232) calls “observability.” In this light, with reference to utility cycling, a recent study suggests that “sheer numbers of bicyclists increases the visibility of the activity which can influence individuals to try it” (Sherwin, Chatterjee, and Jain 2014, 11).

Failure to ‘protect’ invisible riders will inevitably mean that should circumstances change – such as improved incomes – this demographic will abandon bicycling. Observing such a trajectory in India, Brussel and Zuidgeest (2012, 184) argue “we witness in India a reduction in bicycle use among people with a higher income and education.”

References

Brussel, Mark, and Mark Zuidgeest. 2012. “Cycling in Developing Countries: Context, Challenges and Policy Relevant Research.” In Cycling and Sustainability. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Geels, F. W. 2005. “Processes and Patterns in Transitions and System Innovations: Refining the Co-Evolutionary Multi-Level Perspective.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Transitions towards Sustainability through System Innovation, 72 (6): 681–96. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2004.08.014.

Geels, Frank W., and René Kemp. 2012. “The Multi-Level Perspective as a New Perspective for Studying Socio-Technical Transitions.” In Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport, 49–79. New York, N.Y., United States: Routledge.

Koeppel, Dan. 2006. “Invisible Riders.” Utne, August. http://www.utne.com/community/invisibleriders.aspx.

Rogers, Everett M. 1983. Diffusion of Innovations. 3rd edition. Free Press.

Sherwin, Henrietta, Kiron Chatterjee, and Juliet Jain. 2014. “An Exploration of the Importance of Social Influence in the Decision to Start Bicycling in England.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. doi:10.1016/j.tra.2014.05.001.