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.

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.

References

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/01441640903187001.

Mohlamme, J.S. 1995. “Soldiers Without Reward.” Military History Journal 10 (1). http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol101jm.html.

Oldenziel, Ruth, and Adri A. Albert De la Bruhèze. 2011. “Contested Spaces: Bicycle Lanes in Urban Europe, 1900–1995.” Transfers 1 (2): 29–49. https://doi.org/10.3167/trans.2011.010203.

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.

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

 

Feeling Community: Emotional Geographies on Cycling Infrastructure

I have a chapter, Feeling Community: Emotional Geographies on Cycling Infrastructure, in a new book entitled, Experiencing Networked Urban Mobilities: Practices, Flows, Methods.

The chapter explores how experiences of cycling with others can create emotions of mutuality. Such feelings can encourage utility cycling. The chapter is based on auto-ethnographic experiences while cycling in Chicago.

The publisher  – Routledge – has made the following short introduction available:

Cycling has been linked with personal and group identities (Popan 2014; Stoffers 2012; Fincham 2007; Ebert 2004; Carstensen and Ebert 2012; Edwards and Leonard 2009; Skinner and Rosen 2007). Skinner and Rosen (2007, 86) suggest that “identity [should be considered] as intrinsic to people’s transport choices.” They offer three models to think about the relationship between identities and transport. In the first model, identities shaped by social contexts sway transport choices. In the second, travel experiences generate collective identities that influence transport mode choice. In the third, the first two interact, such that transport choices are shaped by identities and in turn travel experiences shape identities.

References

Carstensen, T. A. and Ebert, A.-K. (2012) ‘Chapter 2 Cycling Cultures in Northern Europe: From “Golden Age” to “Renaissance”’, in Cycling and Sustainability. Emerald Group Publishing Limited (Transport and Sustainability, 1), pp. 23–58. Available at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/S2044-9941%282012%290000001004 (Accessed: 14 January 2015).

Edwards, A. and Leonard, M. (2009) Fixed: Global Fixed-Gear Bike Culture. London: Laurence King Publishing.

Fincham, B. (2007) ‘Bicycle messengers: image, identity and community’, in Horton, D., Rosen, P., and Cox, P. (eds) Cycling and Society: Transport and Society. Aldershot, Ashgate, pp. 179–195.

Popan, C. (2014) ‘Cycling, togetherness and the creation of meaning’, in. Cycling & Society Annual Symposium 2014, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K. Available at: http://newcycling.org/events/20131130/cycling-society-annual-symposium-2014.

Skinner, D. and Rosen, P. (2007) ‘Hell is other cyclists: rethinking transport and identity’, in Horton, D., Rosen, P., and Cox, P. (eds) Cycling and Society. Aldershot, Ashgate, pp. 83–96.

Stoffers, M. (2012) ‘Cycling as heritage: Representing the history of cycling in the Netherlands’, The Journal of Transport History, 33(1), pp. 92–114. doi: 10.7227/TJTH.33.1.7.

Stoffers, M. and Ebert, A.-K. (2014) ‘New Directions in Cycling Research: A Report on the Cycling History Roundtable at T<SUP>2</SUP>M Madrid’, Mobility in History, 5(1), pp. 9–19. doi: 10.3167/mih.2014.050102.

Place and bicycling cultures

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.

1979cyclingbecauseoffuelcrisis
Source: Springs Advertiser, Courtesy of Springs – History of A Gold Town

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.

Reference

  • Clarke, J. ed., 1987. Like it was: The Star 100 years in Johannesburg, Johannesburg: Argus Print. & Pub. Co.

 

 

 

 

Chicago’s evolving bicycle culture

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.

img_5172

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.

img_5329

The infrastructure continues to evolve with city council embracing protected bicycle lanes. This should improve safety and attract more users.

img_5147

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)

bicyclemodesharetrendssmoothchicago

References

Berkow, M. & Falbo, N., 2014. Chicago Bike Monitoring 2014: Technical Report, Available at: http://www.activetrans.org/.

Vance, S., 2015. New Census Data Says Chicago’s Bike Mode Share Is at an All-Time High | Streetsblog Chicago. StreetsBlog Chicago. Available at: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/09/25/new-census-data-shows-chicago-bike-commuting-might-be-up/ [Accessed August 29, 2016].