Attending the recent inaugural Africa Cycle Fair was surreal to say the least. It was not so much the passionate (read: obsessive) subculture I had stumbled on, but rather the display of the most well formed – but hairless – calves that had gathered (I am, of course, referring to the men). It was as if I had walked in on an audition for a men’s hair removal commercial. But plucked calves aside, it was nevertheless interesting to see how the cycling trend in South Africa is growing compared to other countries where it is not so much a recreational activity, but rather a daily urban commute.
Internationally, bike-sharing schemes are no longer a novelty, just a convenient means of getting around. When New York launched it’s bike sharing system this year – the Citi Bike – it serviced an impressive 100 000 citizens in the first 10 days. If you visit cities like Paris or London, the cycling trend is so pervasive that it has seeped into popular culture. Bicycles are used in advertising campaigns as a lifestyle indicator, as visual merchandising in retail stores and even as decor in restaurants and coffee shops. Brands like Levi’s now have a specialist range of clothing called, The Commuter, designed with the urban cyclist in mind. At the most recent South African Fashion Week, designer Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee even gave a nod to the cycling trend with a bespoke accessory range for the urban cyclist – The Velocopede Accessory Range – in collaboration with Cycology, the electric bicycle brand.
All well and good as a fashion concept, but I’m keen to know if South Africans will someday embrace cycling as a means of non-motorised transport, rather than just a weekend recreational activity – however popular it has become – hence my foray into the world of shaved legs.
The cleat wearers are calling the current cycling craze in South Africa the next big thing, poised to overtake golf as a corporate activity, and I can believe it judging by the fervor at the Africa Cycle Fair. But the glaring reality is that the mass and emerging middle classes view cycling either as a rich man’s sport, or a poor man’s mode of transport. So while it makes sense for us all to embrace pedal power as commuters, these opposing perceptions are our stumbling blocks.
According to a survey carried out by Gauteng City-Region Observatory in 2011 cycling is almost non-existing in commuting in Johannesburg. In Jozi, 42% of all commuter trips are made by car, 42% by taxi/minibus and 7% on foot. Public transport (bus and train) account for 8%, and less than 1% of all commuter trips are by bicycle. And yet, when you look at the Bicycle Portrait project, initiated by Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler, a conflicting message emerges.
They set out to find out who rides bicycles in South Africa and only photographed people who use bicycles as an integral tool in their day-to-day existence, and the results are telling. People in South Africa do use bicycles as transport, just not in urban environments. It is clear that as major centres develop, we structure cities for cars, not people, which is completely counter productive in a country where there is a gaping divide between those who can afford motorised transport and those who can’t.
When I ask cycle enthusiasts why they do not extend their passion to commuting to work the answer is universal: it’s not safe, so it is clear that we need cycle lanes. Cape Town has started mapping down their cycle lanes and the City of Johannesburg has its “Framework for non-motorised Transport” policy, which has identified 10 priority routes that link peri-urban areas with motorised commuter networks. There are even initiatives to supply communities with bicycles like,
Shova Kalula a state-run project, and Qhubeka, a private sector project, but both projects still don’t address the needs of urban commuters.
However, the people at Cycology might just be able to shift our thinking. They are about to embark on a unique social experiment. They want 5 South Africans, from different LSM ‘s and cultural contexts (ranging from a business executive, to a domestic worker, to a suburban mom) to use their electric bicycles as their principle mode of commuting for one month, documenting their experiences and exploring the economical, environmental, social and psychological benefits of green mobility.
Electric bicycles ensure you don’t break out in a sweat, which will nullify most of people’s excuses for volunteering for this trial. It will be interesting to see their findings, and whether or not they can convince the volunteers to switch to commuting by bicycle. The purists will argue that electric bicycles are technically a motorised form of transport – but baby steps are needed here. Those of us with underdeveloped calves will need incentives, not to mention reassurance that it is a safe mode of transport. It will also be more compelling if we don’t have to shave our legs.
By: Dion Chang
Image credit: Cultura/Robin James/Gallo Images/Getty Images