Scholarship in science and technology studies has for some time argued that technologies can express and shape relations of power. While the concept of ‘scripting’ and associated notions — as ways of thinking about how power relations may be encoded in technologies to shape user behavior (or not) have been fruitfully applied in numerous studies, there is a need for greater conceptual elaboration. This is because of the variety of critiques that have been raised. These for example pertain to supposed exaggeration of designer(s) as powerful figures in producing the script (as designed user behavior in relation to the technology) (see, for example Suchman 2007), or the proposition that ‘script(s)’ are eventually emergent in user interactions (Verbeek 2011).
This paper engages with these conceptual issues by examining historical developments in a small town in South Africa, called Springs. Between the 1950s and 1970s a script to govern mobility behavior of black workers in the context of Apartheid, South Africa was inscribed in various socio-technologies. Ongoing analysis suggests reconceptualisation of designers of a script as well as the technology within which a script is inscribed as also potentially heterogeneous. In addition, the wider social-political milieu within which a script emerges or is embedded, is inextricable as a condition shaping potential for de-scription as itself might be understood as a designer for a script.
Workers arrive at a bicycle manufacturing plant in Springs
A bicycle registration tag then mandatory
Akrich, Madeleine. 1992. “The De-Scription of Technical Objects.” In Shaping Technology / Building Society, edited by Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, 205–25. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: MIT Press.
Suchman, Lucy. 2007. Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions. Cambridge University Press.
Verbeek, Peter-Paul. 2011. Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things. University of Chicago Press.
When I ride a bicycle or walk in a motor-oriented context, I sometimes feel very frustrated by the unequal power relations demonstrated in street level traffic culture. In such contexts, pedestrians or people cycling are rarely ‘seen’ by those behind private cars.
I then remember what a respondent said to me about changes in Chicago. He had been commuting by bicycle and was also involved in grassroots mobilisation. In 2015 he said:
When we started out, people often talked about fearing for their safety. People were not used to us being around. You would be yelled at. There would be people like, what the hell are you doing? So in 12 years I have seen amazing turning around in public opinion. In terms of being yelled, feeling terribly scared on the streets. And now I am in a pack of cyclists. And I see motorists acknowledging you have that right of way. As I see it we are all taking turns. I am finding it a little easier to get your place in line and be acknowledged at an intersection on a bike than it used to be.
That gives me hope then about the possibilities for change – even though such changes appear to take long to realize:
Active Trans. 2018. “Regional Mode Share Report.” Chicago, Ill., United States: Active Transportation Alliance. www. activetrans.org.
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:
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.
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
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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.