Terror on two wheels

Saturday morning, early-ish. Yours truly was coasting along the flanks of Table Mountain at a modest two-wheeled pace. It was Cycle Tour weekend, so packs of cyclists swept up from the rear on their pre-ride test runs, swarmed over me and went baying off into the distance.

The warm glow of camaraderie only lasted until 20 minutes from home, though, when I came upon a prostrate scooter, its rider sprawled on the tar. The poor chap’s diaphragm fluttered like a distressed bird as he hyperventilated with shock. His helmeted head rested on the curb as if it were a pillow. Is that how he landed, I wondered briefly, or had he rearranged himself to be more comfortable?

The car that had hit him was still angled across the intersection with its hazards flashing. Someone in the huddle of people around him had a cellphone to her ear. Must’ve been calling in the cavalry.

I nearly joined the scooter that morning, with all the near-hits in the traffic. There was the taxi that cruised through a red light as though it was answerable to far loftier statutes than the trifling ones imposed by earthly traffic rules. I had to screech to a halt as a motorbike cut in front of me at an intersection; I ducked into the gutter to avoid the approaching ambulance (the cavalry, perhaps?), which swung over into my lane to escape the traffic stacked up behind a red light in its lane; and I bellowed at a driver who didn’t understand that two-wheelers have right of way if they arrive at a stop street first.

By the time I got home I was about ready to hang up my bike.

This was on the same day that the Pedal Power Association organised a memorial cycle in town to commemorate the hard-working taxpayers who’d been killed while cycling on these roads during the past year. It was also the day before the start of a cycling event that was born 32 years before, when a similar two-wheeled protest took to the city’s streets to demand safer cycling conditions on the Cape Peninsula. It doesn’t look as though we’ve come terribly far since then. Now, with everyone finally getting a bit edgy about what climate scientists are telling us, you’d think we would be pulling our weight a little more — and getting about town by pedal power is a good place to start.

I wonder how many people would choose to commute around our cities by bicycle, instead of car, if it was safer to do so? It would certainly do the national girth a power of good. It’d also decongest the roads, cut down air pollution and reduce our road transport-related greenhouse gas emissions, which account for nearly 10% of all emissions.

Consider the average workday commute: I weigh 60kg (cough, cough). To propel myself and 13kg of bike from home to the city centre about 25km away, it would take one hour, about 2 000 kilojoules of energy depending on whether or not the north-westerly was blowing, and maybe a bit of coal-fired electricity to heat the shower water on the other end. To do that same trip by car, I’d need about three litres of petrol to move not just my weight but the also extra 1.2 tons of metal on four wheels. If I was doing that trip by car during rush hour, I’d burn considerably more fuel than that while the engine idled for the better part of an hour as the traffic tried to disentangle itself.

The 2 000 kilojoules amount to 150g of pasta or more bananas than I can eat in a sitting. Though it depends on where the food energy comes from, its carbon footprint is going to be a lot smaller than burning up all that petrol.

But with the rate at which soft-skinned cyclists (and scooters, for that matter) connect with hard-shelled cars, I can understand why most of us aren’t ready to shift our mindset about city commuting. As long as two-wheelers have to share the road with four-wheelers, it’s clear who will come off second best.

But my friends over at Mobility magazine tell me that there are heaps of research about how more bikes on the roads make for safer cycling. It sounds probable. First, though, we need to rally enough brave souls so that we can push beyond the status quo into a place where the sheer weight of numbers finally makes it safer for all of us.

There was one uplifting moment on last Saturday’s cycle: 1km from home I caught up with another bicycle, a middle-class rider returning from a shopping trip, his groceries dangling from his left wrist as the cars whizzed by. Maybe, if there were more of us —

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Leonie Joubert
Leonie Joubert works from Cape Town. Science writer: political-economy of climate change, the hunger-obesity poverty-paradox in cities, mental health Leonie Joubert has over 1355 followers on Twitter.

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