“Do we want to create a society where children are dependent on their parents for transport, or do we want children to cycle to school themselves?” –Unknown source
This is a very important question to ask and particularly relevant in the South African context.
Our children have become increasingly dependent on their parents for transport, either due to a risk to personal safety, distance of travel or for money to pay for bus, train or taxi fare.
Apart from that, we also need to think about what sort of a place we are creating for future generations, by continually ignoring the data that tells us that a climate catastrophe is looming.
The motorcar has brought a measure of freedom and contributed to growth and prosperity, but, worldwide, there is growing recognition that our dependency on the car is failing us.
In the mobility context we need to stop and think about the real costs of our dependency on cars.
Cars are a threat to the Environment
The internal combustion engine uses scarce natural resources to propel a vehicle forward and at the same time, it poses a risk to humans and the environment with its emissions. Fine dust particles contained in motor vehicle emissions are polluting metropolitan areas and killing people that inhale this fine dust. Cities are starting to ban cars from the inner city or imposing heavy fees for access. Congestion simply increases the risk of inhaling fine dust particles. Motor vehicles contribute one third of all Co2 emissions globally. In Europe, 50% of car trips are less than 5km. Cars stand idle for more than 93% of their lifespan. Yet, we demand so much urban space for our cars.
More roads don’t ease congestion
This has proven to be true over and over again. Building more roads is simply a way to accommodate more cars. There are examples all around the world that we can refer to that show building more roads fails to address the congestion problem over the long-term. Anecdotally, we see too many motor vehicles with only the driver inside. Private motor vehicles are simply not utilised efficiently and single person occupancy should be penalised. As the City of Cape Town has stated, it sees public transport, lift clubs and cycling as measures to reduce congestion.
Electric cars and Autonomous vehicles – Are they the answer?
We don’t think so. The battery for electric vehicles uses Lithium as its main component and this raw material requires millions of litres of water to process and mine. The result of this is devastating for the areas where Lithium is mined and communities are running out of already scarce water resources. A recent documentary on German television* explained how the carbon footprint of building an electric vehicle is the same as a normal combustion vehicle that has already been driven for 100,000km!
To achieve an acceptable range, electric vehicles are based on SUV type platforms to accommodate the large batteries required, so the technology is not yet geared for small vehicles that can achieve the kind of range we need in a country like South Africa. We therefore still have large, natural resource-draining vehicles that are congesting our roads. We also need to question the source of the electricity used to power the electric cars. In our case, the electricity would be generated by coal-fired power stations, making the “clean” electric car a very dirty form of personal transport.
Autonomous vehicles take the job of driving away from the driver. They don’t address congestion at all; autonomous technology is simply a way of justifying the further production of the motorcar. This technology may only make sense in large, public transport vehicles that follow prescribed routes and timetables.
*Documentary link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aS_xTJmzdgA
Let’s focus on the bicycle and how it has the potential to solve some of our social, environmental and economic challenges in South Africa.
On a recent visit to Denmark, a local councillor put a different spin on cars, congestion and bicycle infrastructure. He said, “We build cycle paths to reduce congestion on our roads”
The City of Copenhagen does not have separate budgets for car, public transport or bicycle infrastructure. There is only one Transport Budget and all modes are treated equally.
The City of Copenhagen understands how important the bicycle is in the transport mix and plans accordingly. 27% of residents don’t own a car. 50% of all trips within the city centre are by bicycle.
There is no social stigma attached to the bicycle in Denmark. It is simply the most cost-effective, fastest, easiest and environmentally friendly mode of transport.
Bicycles and Spatial Planning
Cities are growing at a rapid rate and fast running out of space. There is less and less room to accommodate people and the cars they bring with them. South African cities are addressing the legacy of Apartheid spatial planning and moving towards a transport-orientated model, where residential and business development is encouraged close to public transport nodes. This shortens the distance of travel to school, places of work and shops and makes the bicycle the ideal mobility choice.
Bicycles take up less space than cars and what little space there is can be used more effectively. Good spatial planning can create communities that have little or no reliance on cars. Communities are connected through public transport and cycle paths, with cars used to cover greater distances between towns and cities, or moving across borders.
Bicycles offer mobility choice
In an ideal scenario, rail would form the backbone of a functioning, efficient and user-friendly public transport system.
Many public transport customers are low-income earners, spending up to 40% of their salaries on public transport and the private minibus taxi service. Some trips may be short enough to use a bicycle, rather than spend money on taxi fare.
With the challenges faced by the rail operator, commuters are suffering and a bicycle offers a real solution. A bicycle plays an important role in the transport mix and commuters can choose which mode is most efficient for each trip they need to make. A bicycle complements the other modes of transport and doesn’t replace them. In many instances, a bicycle will get you to your destination faster than a motor vehicle. The bicycle gives everyone a cost-effective and efficient mobility option.
Bicycles save money and can create jobs
A bicycle is a cost-effective and efficient way of getting around. Low-income earners are incredibly resilient and have the ability to save money. Once a bicycle has been secured, it unlocks the ability to save money. Many trips made by bicycle is a train, bus or taxi fare saved. Many commuters are spending up to 40% of their income on transport. One or two trips per week on a bicycle can quickly add up to money that can be put towards a pension, a child’s education or any other personal savings goal.
Bicycles create work opportunities. As inner cities become more congested, last mile deliveries are being done by bicycle. Medicine and food deliveries are just two of the many opportunities that bicycle mobility can unlock. But, the most obvious business opportunity linked to bicycles is the bicycle mechanic.
As municipalities and government promote bicycle mobility, the demand for bicycle mechanics grows. The opportunity here is twofold: Training mechanics and setting up bicycle maintenance businesses, with the additional retail opportunity attached.
A bicycle factory in South Africa may not necessarily create a large amount of jobs, because in order to keep costs down to build an affordable bicycle, the production process has to be highly mechanised.
Reliable and cost-effective bicycles are already available. Cycling advocacy groups are using well-priced, imported bicycles in the work they are doing.
Government should first invest money in programmes & campaigns that promote and encourage bicycle mobility, rather than invest in a factory. As a future customer of a private bicycle factory, government can set the price by ordering large volumes of bicycles, and make well-priced, quality bicycles accessible to everyone.
The demand has to be created first and government should be forging ahead with initiatives that encourage the uptake of cycling.
Something to consider: The motor vehicle industry receives massive government incentives and credits for establishing factories in South Africa. If the government is keen to see a bicycle manufacturing plant set up in the country, then surely the same type of incentives should be offered to the cycling industry?
A country saves money by promoting bicycle mobility
Every 1200km cycled in Denmark translate into one less sick leave day. The residents of Copenhagen cycle over 1 Million Km per day and save 1,1 Million sick leave days each year. Benefit: Improved productivity and an uptick in GDP.
In the Danish context, every Km cycled saves R14 in health-related costs. A similar saving is immediately achievable in South Africa. The only requirement is for someone to become a regular cyclist. Benefit: Our hospitals and clinics are less busy. It results in people spending less time off work waiting in lines at the clinic. Also, more medical resources are available for people that are really in need of care.
Bicycle infrastructure is cheaper than infrastructure for cars. Over shorter distances an investment in cycle paths makes more sense than building more roads. Where cars and bicycles share facilities, the bicycle has less of an impact on the road surface, which means lower maintenance costs where cyclists ride.
Improving bicycle access in commercial areas has shown to increase retail sales. Gradually reducing the number of parking bays is less noticeable and has a positive retail effect and outweighs the inconvenience experienced by motorists.
Cyclists can stop and enter the store within seconds. The chances of a sale are much higher from a cyclist than a motorist.
Bicycles can save money when included in scholar transport. There are many learners that live far enough from school to qualify for scholar transport, but could cycle to school, using a shorter, direct route. Then there are the learners that don’t qualify for scholar transport, but still have kilometres to walk to school and back every day. Bicycle mobility can help many learners, that have less than 5km to walk to school, get to school faster and leave home later. Scholar transport is expensive and bicycles can help bring the cost down significantly. The added benefit is that bicycles are available to scholars all the time and allow them to participate in extramural activities and not be reliant on the bus or taxi.
The impact of cycling on learner’s physiology and health is currently being investigated in a study by the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA), funded by Pedal Power, BEN and Qhubeka
The environmental saving is often glossed over, but as we have an ever greater, destructive impact on our environment, clean air is something we need to preserve at all costs. Bicycles create zero emissions, require no fossil fuel and are cheap to maintain.
Lastly, an investment in separated cycle lanes generates a meaningful and measurable return on investment. Connecting outlying suburbs or communities to larger centres through a network or bicycle highways, encourages drivers to switch to cycling as a more efficient and faster way of getting from A to B. With the growing popularity of E-Bikes, people have the ability to travel over 50km by bicycle on a single charge.
Bicycles burn fat, not oil
On a bicycle, the person is the “engine”. This “engine” burns fat, which translates into improved health of the cyclist. Obesity is a global problem and one way of combatting obesity is to encourage cycling. The health benefits of cycling are clear and documented, even if you are not a sport cyclist. Commuting by bicycle as a regular activity has enormous health benefits. People get fit, feel healthier, have more positive energy, are more productive at work and have a better attention span at work. Physical fitness improves the self-esteem of the individual and may help prevent depression and other psychological conditions.
Cyclists tend to be happier people!
Bicycles encourage social cohesion
Bicycles have the ability to bring communities together. When you ride a bicycle, there is no physical barrier separating you from the world around you. Cyclists make eye contact; they communicate with each other and they experience a greater sense of freedom.
Most of us rode bicycles as children and we need to rebuild the safe environment on our roads and in our communities that will convince parents to let their children cycle without supervision.
Happy children on bicycles can galvanise a community to become fiercely protective of their neighbourhood, where children can ride to school or just have fun on a bicycle. Parents speak to each other, neighbourliness builds a support network that can hopefully squeeze out and eradicate the criminal element that is making communities unsafe.
Bicycles are valuable tools for Neighbourhood Watches and Block Watch initiatives, providing greater range and enabling quicker response time.
In peri-urban and rural areas, the bicycle is a way of getting around with little or no public transport available. The bicycle shortens distances and allows people to range further.
What we need is Political Will!
Without it, we stand little or no chance of building a culture of cycling. Advocacy groups currently work in a vacuum, with little or no support from municipalities or government. While there is an interest in bicycle mobility, there is always something that is more important. Advocacy groups can’t build cycle paths, but we are expected to get people cycling. Changing behaviour is far harder than finding the budget to build a cycle path.
When a government starts talking about bicycle mobility, that is when the citizens start paying attention. Political will, along with a transport budget allocation for a cycling network, will go a long way to kick-starting a cycling culture.
Some decisions may cause political discomfort, but the benefits of supporting and enabling bicycle mobility will far outweigh the criticism.
There are a plethora of examples in countries around the world, how bicycle mobility provides a solution for a host of practical & social challenges.
Roads and Communities must be safe!
The on-going carnage on our roads works against our efforts to convince people to start commuting by bicycle. South African drivers are often intolerant of cyclists and don’t give them space or wait until it is safe to pass a cyclist safely. Cyclists are not seen as equals on the road, despite being legitimate road users as per the Road Traffic Act.
While there is a 1m passing law legislated in the Western Cape, there is no way of enforcing the law. Traffic officers, when asked, don’t know that the law exists and there is no code to reference, even if they wanted to issue a fine.
The lack of law enforcement on our roads tacitly supports bad driver behaviour when it comes to cyclists and hence motorists feel emboldened to tell cyclists to get off the road.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that law enforcement agents tend to choose the side of the motorist when there is an incident involving a cyclist. When there is a crash, the authorities are quick to point out how the cyclist could have avoided the crash.
No amount of bright clothing and bicycle lights protects a cyclist against an intoxicated driver. Nor does it protect against bad driver behaviour. Consistent and sustained law enforcement with severe consequences, such as taking away a driver’s license, is the only way the worst drivers learn to change their behaviour.
Evidence gathering on the scene of a crash is weak to non-existent. Follow-up by the police is equally questionable. Even in the case where a cyclist dies, the cases take years to reach of closure and there seems to be no sense of urgency to convict the driver that has been found guilty.
A 2013 hit & run case has still not been finalised, with the driver (found guilty and sentenced in 2017) is waiting for his appeal to be heard! He is not in jail, has not lost his license and a family is without a father and husband and has no closure.
In 2017,a motorist hit a cyclist and fled the scene of the crash. The police said they were unable to trace the driver. The cyclist involved used his own initiative and money to pay for a private investigator. The driver was traced within days and appeared in court. Why is it that law enforcement agencies are failing us?
A few years ago a motorist hit a cyclist on Victoria Rd, above Llandudno and fled the scene , dragging the cyclist under his vehicle for some distance. The cyclist survived, but required months of rehabilitation. The driver was eventually found guilty of a minor offence and paid a R3000 admission of guilt fine. That is what the life of a cyclist is worth – R3000!
South Africa’s high crime rate increases the risk of bike theft, especially in poor communities. The bicycle is an asset that provides access to opportunities, but is also worth money to a criminal.
Cyclists are robbed on their way to work, at home and even on the mountain bike trails, where they escape the hustle & bustle of the city (and dangerous roads) to recharge their batteries.
The West Coast cycle path, a world-class cycling facility in Cape Town, has become a no-go area for commuter cyclists. Law enforcement is patchy and allows criminals free reign, which effectively shuts down an important public transport route.
When crime was rife along the N2 near Cape Town Airport some years ago, the military was called in to assist the police safeguard the road. Why is a cycle path not protected in a similar fashion? This is a critical piece of infrastructure that must be available for use at any time.
There are many examples of crime hot spots along cycle routes, both formal and informal, across South Africa. Not only do criminals pose a danger to cyclists and anyone else that uses the path, but they also hobble our efforts to get people on to bicycles.
In a Nutshell
- We need the political will at municipal, provincial and national government level
- Politicians must make some unpopular decisions
- We must take space from motorists to create cycling infrastructure that is separated and safe
- Only if cycle paths are full separated from the roadway, will children and mothers feel safe enough to consider riding a bicycle
- Roads must be safe with strict enforcement and consistent prosecution as a real deterrent
- Drivers need to change their behaviour and understand that cyclists have every right to use the road (as long as there is no separated cycle infrastructure
- The SA Police Service must be consistent in law enforcement and protect vulnerable road users and their property
- The Cycling Strategy for Cape Town must be implemented without delay
- We need a national cycling strategy that places bicycle mobility as an equal to motor vehicles and public transport
- Municipalities, local and national government must invest in promoting bicycle mobility
- If they don’t have the skills, then partnerships must be sought with civic organisations that have the experience to share and assist where they can
- Children hold the key; they are the “Influencers” that have the ability to start a culture of cycling
By going back to the bicycle, we are moving forward in a healthier, cost-effective, sustainable and responsible way