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Johannesburg’s bike lanes are not well used. Here’s why

A largely unused cycle lane between Sandton and Alexandra in Johannesburg. Njogu Morgan

When you think of the world’s bicycle friendly cities, Johannesburg probably doesn’t feature. That’s not for lack of trying. Over the past few years bicycle lanes have been built in various parts of South Africa’s most populous city.

These lanes were meant to encourage commuter cycling and were also a response to growing road congestion as well as an awareness that reliance on private cars has negative economic, health, social and environmental consequences. Commuters have a rough time on Johannesburg’s congested roads. It’s been ranked as having the world’s fifth most painful commuter experience of 20 international cities surveyed.

But the introduction of bike lanes garnered more outrage than support. Some opponents asked how the city could spend money on bike lanes in the face of other, more pressing needs. It was suggested that bicycle lanes were a luxury for the rich – even though most people who use bicycles to commute fall into lower income brackets. Wealthier people generally don’t use bicycles for transport, even when travelling short distances.

This argument succeeded. The new city council which took office early in 2016 decided to halt future bicycle lane development. Projects that had already been put out to tender continued but no new lanes were to be built.

The problem is that bicycling lanes alone don’t create a commuter cycling culture. Scholars across a range of disciplines have written about transport’s systemic dimensions. Different elements – transport technology, industries, social groups and institutions – affect how people move around. Infrastructure, habits, social norms and knowledge also play a role. A transport system only works efficiently if all the different elements exist: cars can’t be driven without roads as well as users who know how to drive them.

The absence of all those different elements has made Johannesburg’s bike lanes a white elephant.

Interconnected systems

Bike lanes have worked elsewhere in the world. Part of the reason for the success of commuter cycling in the Netherlands is the extensive, separated, [interconnected system of cycling paths which makes cycling safe, comfortable and convenient.

The city of Seville in Spain is also regularly pointed out as another example where a well designed, separated system of cycle tracks helped to quickly popularise commuter cycling from a very low base. In the four years between 2007 and 2011 the share of trips taken by bicycle almost doubled to 5.6%.

Transport scholars also argue that any transport system is itself nested in place. It’s shaped by a range of factors: social values, alternative transport systems, politics and topography.

This perspective, and the knowledge that’s come from it, helps provide some answers about why Johannesburg’s bicycle lanes are underused.

The first insight is that various elements which constitute a bicycle commuting system have not yet fully formed. Bike ownership is one issue. The 2014 Household Travel Survey revealed that only 28.7% of households within the City of Johannesburg owned bicycles in working order.

A forthcoming study by the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg, parts of which I have seen, which surveyed students and others who live near cycle lanes around the city’s universities, reveals that more than 70% of respondents do not own bicycles.

There are other barriers that inhibit bicycle users. Research has found that potential users are concerned about blockages, like rubble, on the bike lanes. Other issues cited in one piece of research include “lack of respect for cyclists and the cycling lane[s], [the] stigma of being a cyclist [and] lack of road safety for cycle users”.

Potential bicycle users are also held back by concerns about personal safety, particularly theft.

This shows that bicycle lanes are only one of the necessary elements for a vibrant commuter cycling culture. A “build it and they will come” approach that relies heavily on bicycling infrastructure is unlikely to work in isolation.

It may be useful instead to consider bicycle lanes as what US transportation scholar Jessica E Schoner has called

‘magnets’ to attract bicyclists to a neighbourhood, rather than being the ‘catalyst’ that encourages non-bikers to shift modes.

Positive developments

The good news is that the city of Johannesburg’s authorities are paying attention to the commuter cycling system. I have seen this first hand as a member of the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association, and through part of my ethnographic work for my doctoral thesis.

Policymakers in the city have, in public meetings, presented plans which suggest they’re moving towards a more systemic approach in supporting commuter cycling. For example, there’s a plan to increase bicycle access to serve students at the Universities of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand. This access might come through bicycle sharing schemes, where riders can “rent” someone else’s bike. This model is very popular around the world; users pick up a bike at one point and drop it off at their destination.

Another access option might be through short term rentals where a private entrepreneur leases bicycles.

The difficulty is that these and other ideas followed the bicycle lanes. They did not happen in concert with building the other elements of the commuter cycling system. This is why Johannesburg’s bicycle lanes are so poorly used.

All the research suggests that they will spring to fuller life when other elements of the commuting bicycling system are built and the place specific obstacles are addressed.

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