Commuter Cycling in Joburg: An uphill battle?


In this post, we consider some of the obstacles we think commuter cycling faces in Joburg, and provide some input on how we think they can be overcome.

This week is #CycleJoziWeek, a week-long series of events aimed at celebrating and encouraging a culture of commuter cycling in the city. We wonder, however, if commuter cycling will ever become popular enough.

  1. Cycling cannot only be seen as part of a effort to make cities and streets more friendly because, otherwise, it runs the risk of being seen as a World Class City fad, and as something that will, as a result, be used by those who can afford to do so. Commuter cycling needs to move beyond the world of glossy brochures, glitzy launches and high-definition photographs, and has to instead be seen within a predominantly practical narrative. It needs to be shown how cycling is good not only for the individual, but also for the sustainability of a city as a whole, to the point where cars lose their status symbol and people realise that cycling is cheaper both on their own pockets but also on the city and its environment too.
  2. Relating to the point above, cycling in Johannesburg needs to take into account how people use the city already. It is no good designing bike lanes for cyclists when waste-pickers, for example, are unable to access those lanes, or where those lanes are not designed for waste-picker trolleys. Similarly, it is no good implementing bicycle lanes where such lanes make it difficult for taxi and bus commuters to access these forms of public transport because such lanes end up being appropriated anyway by other users. On the other hand, perhaps there can never be this rigid distinction, and that there needs to be some form of informality in the use of the road? After all, look at how people use the road at the moment in Joburg – cars go where they want; pedestrians weave in and out; cyclists and motorists go through red robots. Is this good enough?
  3. In car-centric Johannesburg, commuter cycling faces an uphill battle. Simply put, we do not believe that commuter cycling as well as the ‘open’ public sphere have the legitimacy or trust required (yet) to transform the way people move themselves. People believe (and this belief may very well be warranted) that commuter cycling is unsafe, and that one will inevitably face far more personal risks on a bicycle than in a car. We do not believe that this fear is handled by only putting in more cycling infrastructure, such as bike lanes. Rather, what is required is a transformation of public, pedestrian infrastructure. Simple and fairly banal measures – such as making sure pedestrian traffic lights always work, or ensuring that school kids learn how to use the road as a pedestrian – could, perhaps, go a long way towards this transformation.
  4. In security-conscious Johannesburg, commuter cycling faces an uphill battle for very similar reasons to the above. We are a city that is predominantly not open to the public. We close ourselves off to the public sphere so that the majority of properties are designed for entry by motor vehicle – not pedestrians. Thus, efforts like the #EcoMobilityMonth Festival are good, but it is questionable whether it will have a long lasting impact for so long as shopping malls, building complexes, universities, etc fail to design for the pedestrian on the basis that pedestrians represent something inherently unsafe. The City, however, cannot do this; it is up to individuals within institutions to want to make the difference.
  5. In private development-conscious Johannesburg, commuter cycling has little hope of succeeding when we continue to plan for the car. Developments like Steyn City, the Chinese-built city in Modderfontein, Waterfall City, or Zonki’zizwe do not lend themselves to a city one can access through the bicycle – even if within these ‘cities’ cycle-friendly infrastructure exists. The City can make a difference in this regard in that it needs to be strict about their planning visions – forcing developers to open up their developments to the broader public sphere in which Johannesburg exists. But there is also a role for the Province and national government here, in that there needs to be an alignment of spatial visions across the Gauteng city-region given its inter-connectivity.

Of course, the above negativity does not mean that we believe commuter cycling should never become a phenomenon in Johannesburg; only that it will be enormously difficult to do so. In fact, we think it is critical that Joburgers be dragged kicking and screaming into a less car-dependent age because it is a key ingredient in transforming the spatial environment in which the city exists. Much of the fear and the inequality which pervades this city comes from our slavish dependence on the motor vehicle, and so it is commendable that the City is committed to cycling.

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