2010 Archive story: interview with Louis de Waal (one of the founders of the 1977 Big Ride)

Engineer and bicycle activist Louis de Waal has had safe cycling on his mind for the last 70 years or so… And at last it’s on the minds of others.

In mid-March 2010, Western Province MEC for Transport, Robin Carlisle, announced that his department had begun looking at measures to bolster cyclist safety on our roads. This includes identifying roads with the highest rate of cycling accidents and creating designated temporary cycling lanes on those roads.’

‘As someone who cycled to work for more 10 years,’ said Carlisle, ‘I fully understand the hazards cyclists face everyday. Accordingly, I have instructed our legal advisors to examine the prospect of changing traffic laws to oblige motorists to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between themselves and cyclists. This will make it unlawful for motorists to overtake cyclists in the face of oncoming traffic.’

At last!

Retired civil engineer Louis de Waal — who rode his 34th ‘Argus’ cycle tour in 2011 — is cited by almost all national and international cycling policy consultants, transport engineers and activists who know Cape Town (and by MEC Carlisle) as the reason the city has any form of NMT policy or infrastructure. And he’s been persistently ‘nagging’ about the 1.5 metre distance for decades. In early March MEC Carlisle visited de Waal’s offices for the umpteenth time, and emerged with what made news headlines: ‘New cycling safety law mooted’.

De Waal’s focus is not on sport — as one of the founder riders of the ‘Argus’, he notes that it’s been one of the biggest failures in terms of advocacy, as the ride was conceived as an awareness campaign for better facilities for utility cyclists (people who ride a bicycle as a mode of transport). But 34 years later, things are finally happening.

For De Waal, who was a child in Dundee, KZN, during the Second World War, cycling was simply a way of life. His father, a schoolteacher, rode to work every day, and de Waal and his two brothers rode to school. Who didn’t, in those days? ‘It’s just so obvious,’ says de Waal. ‘When there’s no fuel and no money!’

‘Make no mistake, I love my car — I couldn’t cycle to many of the places I drive. But the bicycle is the most efficient form of transport there is.’

When de Waal moved to Cape Town to study engineering at UCT, he brought his single-speed Hercules with him — but stopped short of ‘that hill’ and for a year leaned it safely against the Virginia creepers and walked the remaining distance. ‘That bike never got pinched,’ he says. ‘That was 1955, and I was perhaps the only person on a bike then. Everyone else walked or took the bus.’

As a graduate in 1959, de Waal went to work for the Provincial Roads Department: ‘in those days, they just built roads, finish and klaar, it was difficult even to think of a bicycle lane. That’s when roads just took off in South Africa…’

But think of a bicycle lane he did, especially after working in Scotland, and studying for a master’s in transportation at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘There I saw how far behind we were. There, even professors were arriving by bicycle.’

His thesis, astonishingly — when we consider how this is still an anomaly — was on the design of bicycle facilities. ‘I could see it all around me, there,’ he says. ‘I was so impressed. In the US in the 70s, bicycling had nothing to do with status and everything to do with practicality.’

‘In1972 I got back to South Africa and then I really started seriously. Every year I’d go and punt bicycles at transport conferences. ‘It was uphill uphill all the way. Open your minds, guys, I wanted to say — it’s not just roads and bridges…’ And all this time, de Waal was practicing what he preached, riding to the Diep River station and taking the train to his engineering practice in the central city. ‘I used to lock my bicycle in a little room there,’ he said. ‘That room is still there, but no bicycles welcome anymore…’

‘I always had a little umbrella with me, and I’d open it and sail home,’ he laughs. ‘I blew out quite a few umbrellas, but it was great fun having a sail on a bike…’

The 1980s was the start of De Waal’s bicycle seminars, hosted at the Josephine Mill and organized by his engineering practice, HHO. ‘1982, 84, 86, I had to get the engineers interested…’

In 2002 he retired — to a world ‘in which it is even less safe to ride on the roads; everyone is jockeying for position, overtaking without seeing…’

And then, eventually, it all began to come together. That year, we managed to get Dullah Omar, then the national minister of transport, to commit to a bicycle programme for school learners and farmworkers.’ The programme, Shova Kalula, is one that De Waal’s NGO, the Bicycling Empowerment Network, has been instrumental in implementing. And in 2008, HHO was awarded the contract to design and build many of the bicycle lanes alongside Cape Town’s New IRT – launched in February 2011.




UPDATE: Just a year after this interview, it’s astonishing how much has changed, as the second Big Ride In made clear last Saturday [14 May] At last, cyclists really have something to celebrate.

(c) gailjennings.co.za

A brief history of the very first Big Ride in:

Cape Town City Council, in response to a formal appeal by the newly-formed Western Province Pedal Power Association (WPPPA) to the Cape Town Municipality, to provide safe and enjoyable bicycle paths, instructed Councillor Frank van der Velde to receive a deputation that included Bill Mylrea, Louis de Waal, Eric Wale, Koos Slabber and John Stegmann.

Having previously been told that precious funds would certainly not be made available in the absence of cyclists, we were delighted to find Frank receptive and enthusiastic. Big Ride In (1977), and the more ambitious Argus Cycle Tour (1978), were therefore intended to demonstrate to the City Fathers that, given safe car-free conditions, cyclists would appear. A memorandum was handed to then-Mayor John Tyres on the steps of the City Hall, and thereafter he led the group of cyclists,- including Frank, on that now historic tour of Darling and Adderley Streets, that were closed to motor traffic for the occasion.

In 1979 the Cape Town City Council approved funding over three years for our ‘Network of Bicycle Paths’ which would have made Cape Town one of the world’s great bicycle-friendly cities. But the 1979 Bicycle Master Plan was neglected and officially abandoned in 1982 as the mammoth Metropolitan Traffic Plan, which ignored NMT, took centre stage. However, the lobbying continued, and in 1981 consultants HHO Africa were appointed to design a network of bicycle paths in the Rondebosch/Newlands area, to assist cyclists on their daily commute to the local schools. The team, headed by Louis de Waal, developed a network of 22km of paths, after a great deal of public participation meetings and discussions with City Council officials. The Bicycle Demonstration Project was completed in 1985, with follow up studies demonstrating the success of the project at the schools. Since then the need for NMT, as well as the degree of difficulty in providing for it, have continued to rise acutely, making these latest achievements all the more commendable.



GoMetro, Metrorail’s mobile info service, looks back on its first 30 days in action

Thirty days ago, as part of Metrorail’s “Programme of Action” initiative, Metrorail Western Cape partnered with South African technology start-up company, mobi.lity, to launch Go Metro – a digital resource for commuters to have more control in their journey when travelling on Metrorail trains in the Western Cape. The first month has seen the mobi-site […]

Giving infrastructure projects a green rating: how to design ‘green’ from the inside out

As we face significant challenges issues such as climate change and global warning, it is clear that the engineering profession has a significant part to play in influencing the future of our planet. Whatever we may think about environmental responsibility, we can be sure of this: that we all need, and will continue to need, […]

Fuel-cell cargo bike could power your lights and TV too

Locally designed hydrogen-powered tricycle – named ‘A hi Fambeni’, Xitsonga for ‘Let’s go’ – has attracted much attention since its 2010 launch in South Africa as a sustainably powered goods-to-market vehicle for rural areas. It’s also an entry into the international SMART Mobility EnterPrize competition, which aims to identify existing and emerging sustainable mobility business […]


  1. […] Louis de Waal: transport engineer and bicycle planner since the 1970s, the grandfather of all things NMT in South Africa. The inspiration behind the 1.5 m passing distance proposal. Read more about him here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: