My main means of transport through the streets of Jo’burg is a slightly battered pink bicycle with a basket over the front wheel. The experience is teaching me many things I would not have expected.
When I enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand last year, I was fresh from a two-year stay in a small university town in Sweden, where bicycles outnumber cars — and quite possibly people. In Sweden I had learnt a lot about the benefits of cycling, and I wanted them here too. I wanted the health benefits of daily exercise without having to set aside time for it. I wanted the environmental benefits too, of low-carbon, climate-friendly transport.
And I really wanted that all-important cost-saving in our limping economy. Aside from what it costs to repair punctures every so often, my transport is free.
Of course, the R1 000 I paid for my second-hand bike is not nothing, but it’s significantly less than a car. If I compare it with what I would pay in minibus taxi fares every day, even assuming I never travelled at peak traffic times, my bike paid for itself in about seven-and-a-half weeks.
As I cycled along on my way to Wits, through — let’s face it — pretty privileged, largely white areas, I couldn’t help but notice how many cyclists there are. Plenty of people toting handbags and wearing work clothes, clearly not just cycling for fun. It’s a reality that can’t be fully understood from within the moving bubbles that are cars.
Another thing I noticed was that the truth about cycling in Jo’burg does not match its image. It’s not about thick-set white men wearing Spandex and cycling along in formation at weekends. Its face is far poorer.
It’s about South Africans using their personal power to commute to work — a necessity, not a leisure activity. So a government choice to build more cycling infrastructure — rather than ever more highways for privileged car users — would be pro-poor.
Despite this, there seems to be a perception among the more privileged in Jo’burg that cycling is not an option, unlike in many large European cities.
The problem here is one of connection. We need to be able to connect cycling with public transport for it to be a desirable option. We need public transport with the option to load bicycles, and more sites where bikes can be locked safely, waiting for their owners to return. Then people could cycle to a bus stop or taxi route and either leave their bike there or take it with them and cycle again on the other side.
We need these systems, because the truth of the matter is that many South Africans are already using their personal power to commute. Not having useful systems is making peoples’ lives more difficult. It is a well-known fact that public transport is far larger than private transport.
In 2014, Statistics South Africa did a national household travel survey and found that 41.6% of commuters use minibus taxis, compared with the 13.7% who use private cars. And being a user of public transport means being a pedestrian too.
So, as I cycled along, it became clear to me that a policy for cycling infrastructure would not only be a pro-poor policy but, more than that, it would also be fundamentally pro-community. Outside the car bubble, one is far more connected to one’s environment and the people in it.
Along my cycling route, I began to know people — the newspaper vendors, the group of construction workers and the nice ladies waving the flags, the proprietor of the little tuckshop near Empire Road frequented by commuters, the garage attendants who went out of their way to help me when I got my first puncture.
When you pass people every day, you need to greet each other. You need to talk sometimes — what is it to be human if not to communicate, after all?
Personally, I think that one of the biggest problems we have in South Africa is that we don’t trust each other. There are obviously lots of historical reasons for that but the more we occupy the same space, the more we talk, the more we rely on each other, the more I think we’ll rediscover the trust we’ve lost. Or maybe build the trust we never had.
Ultimately, the main thing that I discovered during my year of the bicycle in 2018 was a clear conviction: what we need is for government to make transport choices that prioritise the poor, not the rich. In a country where most people do not commute by private car, we need to invest in public transport and infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.
But we also need the more privileged to buy into this. We need people to choose to use their own personal power to get to work, even if they have a car. We need to decide on pro-poor, pro-community, pro-environment transport.
And on that note, I’ll be on my bike.
Ruth Krüger is a sustainability scientist studying towards an LLB with the aim of becoming an environmental lawyer