Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad?


Riding a bike is a strange thing to do: it’s not just a mode of transport; it’s an economic class you’re entering – the lowest in the economy of space of South African roads. Riding a bike is also an initiation into being treated like you’re invisible, and like your rights are optional, when you’re not actively threatened.

All the same, bike commuting is so physically, intellectually, socially and spiritually stimulating that none of this is a real deterrent, but that’s because I can afford medical care; I have options. Cycling just cuts my commute and takes out what cake puts in; for other people, it would revolutionise their working lives, rationalise their monthly budgets and greatly amplify the jobs and places they can reach.

Yet cycling shows me a side of South African life that class, race and gender power had hitherto shielded me from. I knew about things that I had read, more in fiction than in academic literature; I have ready words to describe the reasons for the zeal with which (some) car users want to run a human-powered vehicle off the road. Now I have been cycling and riding Metrorail daily for 24 months, I have bodily sensations to put to these concepts: I have experienced, several times, the physical danger that someone else’s carelessness might end your life, simply and quickly. Because we all know that our country’s roads are among the deadliest anywhere, however, it is perhaps more interesting to look instead at the soft end of a hard truth: the low legal and social status of cycling, the idea that a mode of transport that isn’t motorised and expensive deserves no part of the road, and the way this shows up in the most ordinary interactions – like the one last week.

He looked like a hipsterish Father Christmas – a neat white goatee, a gruff demeanour, twinkling eyes. He held a wrench, which isn’t Christmassy unless you dream of being an engineer, and he has adding or subtracting something from a large and splendid red scooter, which is how the presents arrive in the sushi-latte districts of Woodstock. But Santa was in my bike lane.

Because there is a meanness in me that dates from my childhood working in a mine (no, but I have a lot of feelings when I’m cycling), I asked the man, super nicely, to not take away the only real, working street for human-powered transport in the City Bowl – to please move the scooter he was fixing, and its paraphernalia, off the bike lane so that I could pass him on my trusty steed (a 29er Silverback). The man said no – he was ‘just’ using it quickly. I asked him whether he could see himself taking up ambulance parking or a disabled parking bay ‘quickly’, and invited him to simply obey the law and move his scooter off what was clearly and uniquely set aside for the use of cyclists.

The man, who worked for a company who were very sweet about it when I called later As A Freelance Journalist Of Some Consequence to check the quotation, invited me in turn to ‘F*** Off’ and shoved his sleigh rather roughly off the path. Later, when his far politer boss was (reasonably) trying to keep the company name out of the press, the boss asked me how I knew that the bollarded separate lane that runs up and down the front of his own company premises was set aside for bicycles (this is all taking place on the Fanwalk, by the way).

I had to point out (over the phone) that there were special bicycle-only traffic lights and blue-and-white bicycle signs governing the start and finish of that actual street, the one on which his business was. I had to point out that there were little grey tiles in the red-brick paving with hieroglyphs of bikes on them, five to eight metres apart, along the entire length of the Fanwalk. The boss was a smart, bike-friendly and professional person, who himself was keenly aware of the difficulty of operating a two-wheeled vehicle on Cape Town roads, and even he had been unaware of all this infrastructure.

The point of this little incident is how quite ordinary it will be for anyone who dares to commute by bike around the Fairest Cape. Bicycles – even used on the only street that’s for them – are something people can simply forget about when it suits them. At least twice a week, in morning or evening rush hours, I am forced to stop and explain to bewildered members of the car-driving public that the bike lane is always a bike lane. It isn’t a bike lane when no one needs it for car parking.

The Fanwalk links essentially middle-class suburbs with Cape Town Station. At least during my commute times, it is overwhelmingly a middle-class bicycle route, although the mix has broadened considerably since I started using it intensively in early 2012, and continues to do so. The Fanwalk near the Pedestrian Bridge over Buitengracht, where cars routinely block the cycle route at their own convenience, serves a pretty middle-class clientèle: you can’t throw a brick without hitting a graphic designer who has an interest in Renato Balestra sunglasses but deplores the crisis in _________ia.

This matters because the first way to hate cyclists is to caricature them as privileged people – people who are all bullies in their cars and righteous bullies when in cleats, who accept the rights but not the responsibilities of being traffic, obeying no laws or traffic signals except the Manifest Destiny of personal accident litigation.

But complaining middle-class cyclists are doing, for once, a defensible thing: they are in a position to complain, to speak the language of power, and to shame and punish those who should protect them and who should drive the development of real transport justice.

What middle-class cyclists build through pressure, cyclists at all income levels will one day use. The day is surely coming when it will be illegal not to build a major road in an urban area without building meaningful and non-terrible bike transport, and when people realise that bike and wheelchair routes can be the same thing, and so on; I believe that this future will come much sooner for everyone if people with huge privilege and influence demand these things for themselves, now.

Bicycles and bicycles

In our city, in two years of using only public transport and bicycles to get to work, and travelling over 30kms in this way each day (basically a stroll, by the standards of township commuters), I have seen plenty of poor and working-class people getting where they need to be on bikes. But, because of where I live and where I move, I do still see more middle-class cyclists. It would be a mistake for Capetonians to conclude that the bleating of cyclists for, say, a safe place on the road, was another vector of middle-class privilege, poisoned with a syrupy dollop of greener-than-thou piety.

Cycling is, by the simple mechanics of the act itself, an emancipatory act. A bicycle is round legs, and the poorer you are, the more it has to offer you – immediately. The trains are improving, but the first date for the arrival of new rolling stock is 2015 – and, if you have ever interacted with Metrorail, you can go ahead and diarise that one in pencil rather than ink.

Cycling makes you powerful and fast, and it does it now, and the whinging of middle-class cyclists is an absolute delight for me because it means that a certain number of the Woolies Nation has had an experience that brings them, for a moment, into the precarity that is normal in South African urban life. You may be on a road bike that costs more than an RDP house (there are at minimum five or six of these on sale at Chris Willemse Cycles in Green Point right now), but if a 4×4 hits you because Mommy was trying to shift her Yogalates™ session on the phone while also turning, that’s it – you’ll be just as dead as if you were poor. This is an imposed kind of solidarity, but it’s not nothing.

Being a cyclist and using the train offers middle-class South Africans an increasingly exotic experience: actual physical proximity to people who aren’t rich. The result is actual input into a visual imaginary of who The Poor and Workers are.

The revolutionary potential of bicycles is coming – for now, the disproportionate number of the people you will see on bicycles in central Cape Town are dressed fancy. But that is a function of place and distance – and also danger: these are people who can afford a little time off or the best care if they were to have a fall, or a collision, or if a parked car opened a door into them. I will write more in future about the more interesting and much more meaningful question of how to get the poor and workers onto bicycles, even at the vast and entirely intentional distances that mark the South African city (it can be done, it has been done).

I’m rambling here, but a final anecdote: I’ve just come from a Masters-level class in ecological thinking in my city planning class. The lecturer, a highly accomplished professional in the field, has arranged a sensational field trip for the 40 or 50 of us, to be held on a Saturday morning in Kalk Bay. The lecturer set about trying to establish how many private cars we had, and who could give lifts. I challenged this in class, and the lecturer – who was very open to the discussion, and who obviously has previous practical experience of the logistics of such trips – mentioned that Metrorail isn’t that convenient or consistent, especially on weekends, and that it we couldn’t be late because an outside partner was involved, etc. She was open to the discussion. But my class, when I put up my hand again after a half-hour of plotting and stewing, broke out in polite laughter when I raised the issue again.

My point was that we should take trains if we’re trying to get from UCT to Kalk Bay – from one of the places most lavishly served by public transport to another compact little town bang on the railway line with its own station. The prospect of going on an ecological outing without burning petroleum in our private cars was lightly, laughably eccentric to an audience of people who are tasked with transitioning our fissile society from a petroleum economy and mentality to a post-petrol built environment. People were like, ‘the train! The train might not run that morning! It might be late!’.

It makes me think that my Masters class would learn more about urban economic survival strategies, about place-making and about behavioural change, in watching a Metrorail platform-full of commuters wait for a train, and then the next one, and then the last one, on a cold Friday night in July, than they would in a week of lectures. There are still a few weeks before the outing, and much car-shaming to do; we might yet make it there by public and human-powered transport – and I hope we do, because this city is littered with bikeways not built by cyclists, and train stations not designed by anyone who actually commutes with a train.

It’s high time to accept that you can only become an expert at understanding bike, bus and train infrastructure by using it, and if you’re not an expert, you have no business designing it: Cape Town’s already tried that.


About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at

There are 2 comments

  1. Margie Murcott

    well done Brett, agree with you completely. It worries me greatly that this is being framed as a middle class issue, where really its about opening up mobility to more vulnerable people. Enrique Penalosa’s Ted talk also expresses these issues well.

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