Columnists

Pedal at your peril

Anthea Buys

Riding a bicycle as a simpler, more efficient way to travel? Not in Cape Town, writes Anthea Buys.

Last month, I bought myself a bi­cycle, the first I have owned since I was 12. I did it for several reasons, the most noble of which was to do my bit for the environment.

I live in St James, mere metres from the train station. I am fond enough of the train and am open to ditching my car in favour of a gentler approach to travel. A daily combination of train-riding and cycling would take my carbon footprint way down. It would also mean one less car congesting those highways that unfathomably segue into suburban roads.

All round, it seemed very plainly like the sort of thing I should do, and should be encouraged to do by those with an interest in how the city runs: the roads agency, local government, even Metrorail.

Cape Town’s public transport infrastructure is just extensive enough to make it useful, but not enough for commuters to do all the in-between bits on foot. Before my bicycle days, I would take my car into town to avoid half-hour marches between appointments. A bike, I dreamed, would change this. I would glide from meeting to meeting with the swiftness and elegance of the Dutch, without so much as breaking a sweat. 

How wrong I was. On my first day as an urban cyclist, I was nearly banished by Metrorail, I sweated my hair flat and had my left pedal removed by a car overtaking me on the wrong side.

My fantasy of cycling between appointments turned into a hell of pushing my busted steed from Woodstock to Vredehoek and back again.

Inconceivably, there is no legislation governing bicycles on Metrorail trains in Cape Town.

This means that bikes must ride together with commuters. This is obviously a terrible idea; there is no comfortable way to organise a train full of luggage-laden people around a bicycle.

Yet, according to at least three Metrorail staff at the Cape Town Central station, all one has to do to travel with a bicycle is buy it a “large luggage” pass for R10 and detach the front wheel.

Another mystery is Cape Town’s bicycle lanes. There are a few in the very centre of town, and they seem to have been organised considerately enough, with bollards and traffic islands separating them from the road in many places. But to cycle in one is to try to defy death.

On Bree Street, drivers tend to treat the bicycle lanes as channels into which they can drift while taking phone calls to get out of the main traffic flow. In some of the streets off St George’s Mall, which are visibly reserved for use by pedestrians and cyclists only, smaller cars treat the cycling lanes as parking bays, using the bollards as guides rather than deterrents.

One would think that, with an established presence of cyclists throughout Cape Town and its surrounds, drivers and those whose job it is to enforce the rights of citizens would pay more attention to them.

Sadly, they do not. Until this changes, urban cycling is really just urban walking with a cumbersome load.

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