This article was published in the Cape Times, 2 May 2018
On Saturday 21 April, a group of cycling enthusiasts gathered to engage with two fascinating speakers sharing their insights about what it might take to make bicycles an everyday thing in Cape Town. Dr Njogu Morgan, reflected on his PhD, which focused on a comparative analysis of cycling in cities such as Johannesburg and Beijing; and Lebogang Mokwena, Cape Town’s inaugural bicycle mayor, on her mission to teach women adults how to cycle. The former was a historical analysis of the evolution of cities in this respect and the latter a very personal account of engaging with the bicycle as a tool of self-discovery. Both were reflections of the power this never-aging piece of technology can have in our individual psyches and societies at large.
The aim of the meeting was to address the issue of inclusivity and, as Lebogang put it, “how to make the circle bigger” when it comes to cycling in a city such as Cape Town. The irony of most of these types of gatherings, as she also pointed out, is that she was “preaching to the converted” – hardly the right people to shed light on why cycling is not an everyday thing in Cape Town.
Nevertheless, the group reflected on what cycling brings about, from a fun activity that provides people of all ages an opportunity to interact and engage with streets to an opportunity for social uplifting. The concerns shared at the start of the session were all too familiar and related to safety and security, poor infrastructure and the lack of an integrated system that allows for bicycles to be transported in trains and bicycles.
The formal presentations followed. Dr Morgan shared the cycling stories of Beijing, Amsterdam, Chicago and Johannesburg and outlined how, despite the complexity of each, they all had similarities – largely around the key political decisions and the involvement of social movements in catalysing change. Not all decisions were popular, of course. He explained how in Beijing, for example, the communist apparatus facilitated a decision to ban cars in order to develop sense of “being part of a collective”. Similarly in Amsterdam, government banned competitive cycling races on public roads to prevent a distinction between sport and utility. In Johannesburg, on the other hand, the political philosophy of South Africa’s apartheid resulted in the state discouraging a cycling culture among non-white residents, as it was a threat to the state’s ability to control movement of the black majority. This political decision was based on a need to hold power through limiting the freedom of movement of communities.
In terms of culture, it was interesting to hear that in Amsterdam the “Calvinist approach” was very strong and that it was considered in bad taste to show your wealth and own a car. So politicians and the monarchy were among those who cycled from the outset. In contrast, Chicago has seen an increase in cycling but has experienced the challenges of doing so in an equitable manner, and currently struggles with programmes such as bike sharing catering primarily to the wealthy portions of the population. Interestingly, social movements have emerged to counter this trend. Each city presented the elements for great storytelling and, while the group revelled in the different storylines, Dr Morgan was unapologetic about his conclusion that the history of cycling was related to the struggle for building power bases.
Following a journey through history, the newly announced bicycle mayor for Cape Town, Lebogang Mokwena, captured the audience with her inspiring story of falling in love with the bicycle. It was a journey that took her from feeling frustration and embarrassment for not being able to cycle as an adult to making a commitment to ensuring that other women, specifically in Cape Town, would have an opportunity to learn to cycle and to maximise the benefits this often-considered basic skill can bring to one’s life in a city.
Lebogang reflected on how her parents’ generation cycled to work and so riding a bike was considered an essential skill. Yet she never learnt to cycle, partly because there was no reason to ever have to ride – workplaces were miles from residential areas. The geography in Johannesburg discouraged cycling. Besides, bikes were expensive. She reflected on the critical role the bicycle can play in a city with the economic disparities and power imbalances a city like Cape Town has. “If we are able to shift our attention and make bicycle mobility available to the poorest, the ones who live the furthest away from the centres, and women, we’re probably quite a step closer to having a meaningful conversation about how we make cycling in the city or in this country cycling for all,” she said.
Her message was clear and succinct. The first step is to impart knowledge and the ability to cycle. Infrastructure will not be used unless people not only know how to cycle but feel compelled to do so. She spoke specifically about the cultural value of the bicycle in a society where the automobile is still a symbol of aspiration and success. In her new role as a bicycle mayor, she wants to awaken a new mindset in us all.
“We’re hoping to embed a different relationship with the bicycle, to embed a different imagination about their mobility, and to embed a different understanding of what development is. And, development is not all of us driving flashy BMWs. It’s also about very simple lives that allow us to do the things that we really value without having to always spend money on those things.”
Following the presentations, the group discussed a wide range of issues, from the impact of cycling in the economy of a city and congestion challenges in Cape Town to the need for individuals advocating for safety. While the British and the Dutch cycling economies have both helped people save billions in health costs, and while in some cities the bicycle economy is an engine for growth, it is clear that in our city we are not yet ready to reap the economic benefits of a fully-fledged cycling ecosystem. We must start with the basics, which include teaching people to cycle as well as providing them with the facilities such as bicycle parking and other creative forms of encouragement. Judging from Saturday’s conversation, the process will not be short or simple but it all starts with one step, or one pedal, at a time.