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.

Crowdfunding: Cycling Cities, the Johannesburg Experience

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.

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

 

Cycling infrastructure and the development of a bicycle commuting socio-technical system: the case of Johannesburg

I have a new publication out in the journal Applied Mobilities.

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.

 

Keywords: Infrastructuretransitionsutility cyclingsocio-technical systemsJohannesburg

Going ‘Dutch’ in South Africa in the 1930s?

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.’

1930sbritcycletrack
First cycle track built in 1930s in Britain; an enthusiast tries it out on his old ‘high wheeler’

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.

References

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.