Work to Build a Biking Culture

Cape Times (South Africa), May 2, 2018 | Go to article overview

Work to Build a Biking Culture


On Saturday, April 21, Open Streets convened a group of cycling enthusiasts to engage with two top speakers sharing insights into what it might take to make bicycles an everyday thing in Cape Town.

Dr Njogu Morgan, reflecting on his PhD that focused on a comparative analysis of cycling in cities such as Johannesburg and Beijing, and Lebogang Mokwena, Cape Town's inaugural bicycle mayor, embarked on a mission to teach women how to cycle.

The former was a historical analysis of the evolution of cities in this respect, and the latter a personal account of engaging with the bicycle as a tool of self-discovery.

Both were reflections of the power this never-ageing 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 Mokwena put it, "how to make the circle bigger" when it comes to cycling in a city such as Cape Town.

The irony of most such 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 upliftment.

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.

The formal presentations followed. 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, the communist apparatus facilitated a decision to ban cars in order to develop a sense of "being part of a collective". Similarly in Amsterdam, the 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 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 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 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 experienced the challenges of doing so in an equitable manner, and struggles with programmes like bike sharing catering mainly to the wealthy.

Interestingly, social movements have emerged to counter this trend. Each city presented the elements for great storytelling, and Morgan was unapologetic about his conclusion that the history of cycling was related to the struggle for building power bases. The newly announced bicycle mayor for Cape Town, Mokwena, captivated the audience with her inspiring story of falling in love with the bicycle. It took her from frustration and embarrassment at not being able to cycle as an adult, to committing to ensuring other women would have an opportunity to learn to cycle and to maximise the benefits it can bring to one's life in a city. …

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