Two recent developments in the road network in Johannesburg have elicited themes of historical changes and continuities.
A first one was the opening of a cycling and walking bridge over a motorway. The bridge is undoubtedly a boon for numerous people walking, some cycling and others riding/pushing recycling carts to and from two socio-economic spaces: a residential area called Alexandra Township and the other Johannesburg’s financial centre called Sandton. See images below.
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
4 May 2018
From a long historical view, the new bridge can be read as a correction of an historical injustice. From the 1930s to about the 1970s, Louis Botha Avenue carried numerous people on bicycles. They were travelling from Alexandra Township southwards to their places of work including the then central business district of Johannesburg. In 1939 a newspaper reported:
The stream of native (sic) cyclists from Alexandra Township into Johannesburg begins to take volume every morning from 5:30. They are on their way to work….For over two hours, the density of this traffic hardly abates (Unknown 1939, 6).
In 1940, one observer of bicycle flows along the road in a letter to the editor of a newspaper said:
Last Monday at about 630pm, the writer counted in the space of only four minutes 93 native (sic) cyclists riding past the Astra theatre (H.A. 1940).
Yet in spite of this heavy bicycle traffic, the only safe cycling measure allocated was a painted cycle lane. A lane that was eventually abandoned. Louis Botha Avenue became mainly a motoring thoroughfare. From this long view then, the new bridge potentially represents a change towards an urban landscape less dominated by automobiles.
A second development while catering to public transport, also however signals lock-in of automobility. In an effort to relieve motor vehicle congestion, Johannesburg city council recently announced a road widening project on a road called Jan Smuts Avenue.
From an historical perspective, the 2018 initiative evokes a sense of déjà vu. In 1963, in anticipation of a motor car future, the then city council set aside money for road expansion involving the same Jan Smuts Avenue and other roads:
The city’s motor cars are increasing so fast…To avoid all these cars bursting the city’s traffic arteries, the Council has already agreed to spend another R14-million on a further 10-year major road programme, planned to start in 1964. it will include the widening and streamlining of Jan Smuts Avenue opposite and beyond the Zoo and other main arteries (Unknown 1963, 9)
Certainly, simply based on historical developments along Jan Smuts Avenue, the road widening project will but provide temporary congestion relief. In the 1960s, council may have not known that the extra road capacity would be a short term solution. There is however now ample transport planning empirical evidence and theory that the Jan Smuts widening project should have been a non-starter.
These and other tales will be contained in a forthcoming book entitled, Cycling Cities: The Johannesburg Experience that I am working on. The book provides an overview of the history of utility cycling in Johannesburg from the late 19th century to 2016. It will be available later in 2018.
H.A. 1940. Native cyclists; Dangers of Louis Botha Avenue. The Star (Johannesburg, South Africa). 22 July.
Unknown. 1939. Native cyclists are controlled by Men of their own colour; Experiment promises good results. The Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg, South Africa). 5 July.
Unknown. 1963. Annual Report of the City Council of Johannesburg. Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg, South Africa). 9 October.
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.
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.
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).
Photo courtesy: Marie Huchzermeyer, 2017
Photo courtesy: Marie Huchzermeyer, 2017
Photo courtesy: Marie Huchzermeyer, 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.
…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.
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).
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.
City of Johannesburg, 2009. Framework for Non-Motorised Transport.
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.
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.
In December of 2016, I visited Chicago on a short holiday.
Chicago was one of my secondary study sites for my recently completed PhD into changes into the symbolic status of everyday cycling. I took a historical view examining changes over time. Given this perspective I was curious to observe street level changes since my last study visit in April 2015.
I was pleasantly surprised that even in subzero weather, there were people bicycling.
There has also been a noticeable evolution in the kinds of bicycles on the streets. I observed more bicycles better suited to everyday cycling such as the one below which allows comfortable upright posture, easy on and off maneuver given step through frame, and hassle light long term maintenance given integrated brakes and gears. Of course notice the pannier racks in the back for luggage.
Bicycles and bicycling also appears to be more integrated and thus normalised into social life including as a commodity item to sell other goods. I saw bicycles in mainstream restaurants, bars, retail stores, advertisements in trains, and other places.
This of course is not to suggest that utility cycling in Chicago is now fantastic. As the image below of a white bike shows, which records a bicycling fatality in public memory, bicycling can be dangerous in Chicago.
The infrastructure continues to evolve with city council embracing protected bicycle lanes. This should improve safety and attract more users.
The bicycle share programme which is a personal favourite – Divvy – is also doing well. I used their bicycles on a few occasions with great pleasure. Their advertisements are fantastic I think. “Muscle mass transit” – how apt.
The mode share of bicycling in Chicago does seem set to continue growing. It offers an optimistic story of shifting towards sustainable transportation from a very low base.
Bicycle mode share trends in Chicago. Assembled from (Berkow & Falbo 2014, p.3; Vance 2015)
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.
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.