The problem is the sewage. Pooled in tell-tale, dark-green clumps of grass, it clings to your tyres, which then spit a near constant stream of stinking mess all over your clothes and face. Few offices have showers. And few colleagues are willing to sit next to someone who smells of sweat and sewage for eight hours a day.
Sewage is not going to go away, but rather provides a moving obstacle for cyclists. Old infrastructure and an exploding population means overwhelmed sewerage works and sewage leaking out of manhole covers and broken pipes. Cyclists — finding themselves rejected from the pavements and roads — tend to end up commuting along the same routes where sewage has found easy paths.
Rotting faecal waste is a small problem when compared to the very real possibilities of injury and death that cyclists face. South Africa is a country where urban commuting is still something firmly controlled by those in cars. But this has not stopped some from fighting to add cycling to the roster of transport options.
The first steps have been private ones, undertaken by groups of like-minded individuals who have sought to create greater awareness of cycling. Organisations such as Critical Mass habitually hold large-scale cycling events where hundreds of helmet-wearing riders jockey with cars for use of South Africa’s roads. The organisers of the Johannesburg mass event said their goal is to create awareness that cyclists have an equal right to use public roads.
In what are now firmly cycling-friendly European cities, such as Copenhagen and Munich, dedicated lanes and mass use of bicycles means cycling in these cities often overtakes the use of private cars as a means of moving people to work and between social engagements. A recent study in Copenhagen found that the key is to start with awareness: “The more cyclists on the road, the greater the awareness is by drivers of the need to share the space.”
Initially this meant that risks had to be taken to increase the numbers of people cycling along public roads, but the rewards were eventual sharing of the roads. “This inevitably leads to fewer accidents and a greater acceptance of other means of transport by drivers. The benefits then flow to cyclists and pedestrians, and public spaces are created that allow for efficient use of multiple forms of transport.”
In both of these cases the seed for growth was planted by the unilateral action of cycling communities. This then pushed municipalities to create dedicated cycling lanes and put in place formal protection for people on bicycles.
This citizen-led movement has grown rapidly in South Africa’s two biggest cities — Johannesburg and Cape Town. While only 5km of cycling lanes have been built in the former, groups have started to create unofficial highway routes between residential areas and commercial nodes. The Joburg Urban Cyclists Association has driven the distribution of maps that show these routes. Its aim is to have a greater concentration of cyclists along them, to aid visibility and increase safety.
Louise Naude, head of low carbon transport at the World Wide Fund for Nature, said there is a definite upswing when it comes to non-motorised commuting in South Africa’s big cities. “With the rollout of things like Reya Vaya and the Gautrain, we are seeing credible alternatives to our traditional means of commuting.”
This was gradually changing the mind-sets of people, who were starting to see a network of ways in which they can get to their destination. This would include people moving from road to rail, foot or bicycle, she said. “We are starting to crack real public transport. Now the focus is on getting people to transport nodes and cycling is one of the most [viable] links in that chain.”
This shift to a transportation network is foremost in the planning of South Africa’s large cities. Faced with ageing infrastructure and a massive growth in car ownership, the metros are trying to create a new way of moving people. In its 25-year Transport Master Plan, Gauteng said that by 2040 congestion would be so bad that motorists in the province would travel at an average of 15km/h in peak traffic. Public and non-motorised transport — “particularly cycling” — was therefore an urgent requirement, it said.
The plan calls for every city in the province to build 10km of non-motorised transport each year. Johannesburg has started this process, with 5km of cycling lanes built to date. But the city has noted that these dedicated lanes, which physically separate cyclists from cars, have so far been plagued by a lack of compliance and are more often than not used as extra parking spaces.
Cape Town has built several dedicated off-road cycling routes, and is looking at proposals to build a cycling route from the City Bowl to the Southern Suburbs that is completely inaccessible to motorised vehicles. This is in response to a culture that Pedal Power in that city has said leads towards motorists being aggressive when confronted with cyclists in the same lanes.
There has been an historical antipathy towards cyclists, and a lack of belief in the ability of a public transport system to get people where they need to go, according to Ismail Vadi. Speaking during the EcoMobility Festival, the MEC for Roads and Transport in Gauteng said that during apartheid the concept of a public transport system was destroyed. This had led to the primacy of personal cars and taxis, and a consequent dependence on these forms of transport, he said. But this would change with the level of investment and awareness being created of cycling and other non-motorised means of movement.
The EcoMobility Festival was a spark for this movement, he said, with the high profile giving necessary support to initiatives to make cycling a normal means of commuting. “I am confident that in the next three to five years there will be a major culture shift.”
Data on this possible shift is rare, and where it does exist it’s out of date. The department of transport’s latest figures reveal that walking and cycling account for just 9% of commuter trips in metropolitan areas, 26% of trips in urban areas and 52% of trips in rural areas. These statistics are mostly made up of foot traffic. The department said there are 15 million functional bicycles in South Africa, with around 300 000 sold each year.
The cost of bicycles has stymied commuting in rural areas, where bicycles are safer to use and have a much greater impact as alternative sources of transport. The transport department lists five million people as “stranded” because they have no viable transport options. Groups such as non-governmental organisation Qhubeka have dented this number by distributing bicycles to those who need it the most. Qhubeka has distributed 54 000 bicycles in the last decade, with companies and individuals sponsoring the sturdy R2 500 bicycles.
The group said these bicycles have changed lives: children who commute by bicycle have their trip time reduced by 75%, and their marks correspondingly improve by 25%. A bicycle also allows people to carry five times what they could when walking, allowing them to shop and trade without having to fork out money for motorised transport.
But for that steady revolution to grow in cities, government will have to lend more support to cyclists. The Western Cape is the only province to have dedicated legislation, with recent regulations requiring motorists to observe a 1.5m gap between their car and a bicycle when overtaking. With that and dedicated lanes, commuter cycling is set to explode in South Africa. Cycling app Strava provides “heat maps” of the regular routes its users travel along the most. Thick purple lines show where hundreds cycle on a regular basis. There are many of these routes, winding through safer suburbia to commercial hubs. With government building dedicated cycling routes, these purple lines will in time migrate onto roads, as cycling takes its rightful place as a critical form of public transport.
Risks created by cyclists
In extensive research, the European Transport Safety Council has identified several ways in which cyclists create the very problems that lead to accidents:
• Flexibility: Driving has set rules and is guided by signs and marks on the road. Cyclists often flout these rules to make quick gains in traffic and save energy. This makes cyclists unpredictable for motorists.
• Invisibility: Cars have numerous blind spots and cyclists are regularly guilty of cycling without reflective clothing and equipment on their bicycles to make them more visible, particularly at night.
• Differing skills: There is no minimum requirement for people to cycle on roads, so people of all skill levels are negotiating public spaces with vehicles and pedestrians. There is no overall body for cycling to push for regulation.
• Estrangement: Cyclists are regularly treated with hostility because motorists do not regard them as paying — and hence equal — users of the road. This sometimes leads to cyclists lashing out.