Social values, politics, street level conduct and cycling advocacy

What is the relationship between broader social values and politics and traffic conduct? That is, can how different road users interact tell us something about the prevailing social relations in each urban place? And moreover what does this mean for cycling advocacy? These were some of the micro questions behind my PhD study. The study (now in writing phase) is exploring changes in social conceptions and practices about everyday bicycle use from a historical comparative perspective.

There is an existing literature of course that offers some insight into these questions. For example there is now an extensive body of literature that demonstrates how social meanings, beliefs, values influence transportation mode choice and practices eg (Stoffers 2012); (Aldred & Jungnickel 2013); (Ebert 2004); (Oosterhuis 2013). Some scholars have examined how different cultural values in China, Japan and the United States produce variable traffic safety outcomes (Atchley et al. 2014).

In spite of this theoretical backdrop, it was still something of a surprise to witness the relationship between broader social values and street level practices in different contexts. I have spent many pleasant hours at street intersections in Johannesburg, Chicago, Nantes, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Here I reflect on experiences in Beijing, China.

One one fine evening during the evening rush hour in Beijing, I spent hours at a street intersection enthralled with the choreography of different road users. See a short video below:

As I sat watching the interactions in November of 2015, I held my breadth waiting for an accident to happen at any moment. None came. As you see in the footage, the different phases of traffic lights are not strictly adhered to. Traffic lights appeared to be treated as offering general but not absolute guidelines. Often but not always users would make judgements on whether to proceed based on real time observations. If there was a gap, someone would take it. But even when such assessments were incorrect producing a potentially dangerous situation, other road users would give way. There was a graciousness palpable. A sense of consideration of the ‘other’. An Austrian living in Beijing expressed a similar observation in comparison to Vienna:

…one main practical difference is traffic regulations and how people obey them. People in Vienna tend to claim their territory in urban traffic regardless of what is happening around them. in Beijing, on the contrary, people on the streets have a good sense for each other and are always aware of their own movement as well as the movement of others. Ignorance of others in traffic just does not exist (Grisby 2013, p.65).

My claim here is that the history of social solidarities in China is present on the streets of Beijing.

What is the implication for efforts to promote everyday bicycle use in low cycling contexts? For me an important conclusion is that cycling advocacy agenda also has to grapple with the social relations that not only affect street level interactions but shape who uses (or not) bicycles. It means that cycling advocacy has to link with broader social change campaigns as relevant in each context e.g. in reducing social difference.


  • Aldred, R. & Jungnickel, K., 2013. Why culture matters for transport policy: the case of cycling in the UK. Available at:
  •  Atchley, P., Shi, J. & Yamamoto, T., 2014. Cultural foundations of safety culture: A comparison of traffic safety culture in China, Japan and the United States. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 26, Part B, pp.317–325.
  •  Ebert, A.-K., 2004. Cycling towards the nation:the use of the bicycle in Germany and the Netherlands, 1880-1940. European Review of History, 11(3), pp.347–364.
  •  Grisby, J., 2013. Beijing’s bicycle kingdom. In Sound of cycling; Urban cycling cultures. Vienna: Velo-City Vienna 2013. Available at:
  • Oosterhuis, H., 2013. Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture. In T2M Yearbook 2014: Mobility in History. Available at:
  • Stoffers, M., 2012. Cycling as heritage: Representing the history of cycling in the Netherlands. The Journal of Transport History, 33(1), pp.92–114.

Changing conceptions of Speed

I just came across a very interesting historical nugget.

On November 15 1902, the Star Newspaper in Johannesburg published a letter by someone complaining about the increasing speeds of motor cars. He was very distressed that a friend of his nearly fell of his horse when a car travelling at least 18 miles an hour (about 29kms/hr) whizzed by.

He requested that the Town Council revert to the previously set 7 miles an hour (11kms/hr) speed limit for all vehicles. Anything else would “constitute[s] a public danger.”

How things change.  These days in Johannesburg 60kms/hr is considered a lazy pace. It may be the case in many other cities in the world. Perhaps this is why 30km/hr is considered a desirable campaign goal that may increase the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. For example see this campaign.

What will the near future bring I wonder.

Johannesburg is an ideal city for Cycling

Johannesburg is an ideal city for cycling. It holds the potential to be one of the most cycling friendly cities in the world. Here are six reasons why.

1. Weather

The weather is perfect. Summer is rarely boiling hot so a slower pace can ensure one is not drenched in sweat and moreover it is not humid. The rains in summer are very predictable falling almost on a schedule so it is easy to plan travel. Fall and spring are pleasantly mild, ideal for riding around at all paces. In winter, some gloves and additional layers of clothes will do the trick. It hardly ever snows and even when it does on the rarest of occasions, as the picture below shows, it is possible to still cycle.


All of this was recognised a few years back by the City of Johannesburg.

2. Street form

The city has a lot of very wide streets and roads some with multiple lanes which could be “dieted” to make way for dedicated cycle paths.


This means that the number of lanes could be reduced without affecting vehicle flows to give over to pedestrian and cycle paths. Alternatively, lane widths especially in suburban areas can be decreased and the same time, traffic calming measures such as reduction in speed limits and speed humps introduced. In some places, roadways have huge spaces between them and the adjacent built environment. This means that developing dedicated cycle paths which are segregated from vehicles – an essential device for attracting potential cyclists – will be in some cases much easier and cheaper than expanding roadways. This is an option not often available to other cities around the world so Joburg is lucky.

3. Spatial form

Everyone knows that Johannesburg is a sprawled City in  a sprawled metropolitan region. Some think that this is a hindrance to cycling because it suggests huge distances to be travelled by the cyclist. However, if we see cycling as part of a menu of mobility options not a replacement in all cases – this dispersed spatial form makes cycling the ideal solution for connecting to the ever growing menu of public transit options instead of the private car. A commuter can leave their home by bike, park it at the nearest transport hub and pick it up on the way back or continue the journey onwards with the bicycle. So commuter cycling in Johannesburg can be the ideal public transport partner. However, we have some way to go before this vision can be properly realised. There are limited parking facilities at many transport hubs and many services (trains, buses and taxis) do not allow bicycles onto them.

4. Commuter patterns

A majority of residents do not own a private vehicle. According to the 2003 National Household Survey, only 33% of households in Gauteng have access to cars (either through direct ownership or use of company cars). While this figure may have increased  since then, a subsequent study (2007) revealed that within Johannesburg only 32.1% of households own cars. This suggests then, that the majority of people use public transport or walk to their destinations probably because they cannot afford to own a car or do not have access to one. Given that bicycles are far cheaper than cars, there is therefore a huge potential for vast proportion of the population to use bicycles for part of their journeys.

5. Resident interest in cycling

There is a growing attraction to cycling. During rush hour one can easily spot a lot of commuter cyclists on their two wheels. The Critical Mass movement in Johannesburg has been growing in leaps and bounds each month. From a meagre start several years back, the last critical mass cycle ride was graced by over 500 riders including young children. Each weekend, some of the city’s riverbanks are visited by hundreds of cyclists and there is a seeming explosion of corporate and community based cycling races such as the 94.7 cycle race and Jozi Hustle. This suggests that meaningful gestures to this community of cyclists will entice them to make cycling a regular part of their daily lives.

6. Topography

A mix of hills and flat terrain allows for cycling to provide a modest level of exercise as part of the commuting experience. Some residents might prefer this version of exercise since it is cheaper than visiting a gymnasium and is conveniently embedded in the day – it not one other thing to schedule. However if exertion is not preferred, it is perfectly possible to carve a cycling route through the City involving limited encounters with inclines. A cycling map in development by the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association suggests some of these routes.

These are 6 good reasons I can think of as to why Johannesburg holds much potential to be a cycle friendly city. Of course there is a huge gulf between the potential and practical measures (such as dedicated cycle paths, integration with public transit and education campaigns on street sharing) that will entice the latent cyclists onto the roads. It is not an insurmountable gulf.


Njogu Morgan

Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association