Bicycles deliver a low-carbon future

GAIL JENNINGS asks South Africa’s longest-standing bicycle activist, LOUIS DE WAAL, why cycling is one of the transport modes of the future.

The bicycle won’t solve the world’s problems… It could very well solve some of yours, however. On an individual level, the bicycle transforms lives: in times of plenty and times of hardship.
The Cyclist’s Manifesto’: Robert Hurst.

The bicycle alone is not going to solve our energy problems. It’s not – alone – going to make South Africa independent of foreign oil, resolve climate change, dissolve air pollution, recreate urban vibrancy and clear traffic congestion. And in our sprawling, low-density cities, built for speed and segregation, the bicycle is also unlikely to become the primary mode of daily transport in South Africa.

But where there is clearly no single solution to our environmental and economic challenges, we need a multi-faceted solution. The bicycle is one crucial component of this solution – one that has long been recognised by the urban poor, is gaining traction among the urban ‘cool’, and at last being acknowledged by public sector strategists and planners.

But until bicycle planning becomes less of an ‘if-there-is-space’ option [think Cape Town’s Kalk Bay Muizenberg main road…] and more of a fully-networked, uncontested, mainstream intervention, this remarkable low-carbon transport mode will remain at the margins of transportation, available only to those willing to take their chances with the motorised traffic that by law has no more right to road than two-wheelers do. Thus we believe bicycle users should be granted a few more rights, too.

Why? Because an increase in the numbers of bicycle users can only improve urban air quality, and contribute to climate change mitigation and social equity (not to mention facilitating lessons in those virtues much-needed in the 21st-century: patience, tolerance and empathy).

Movement by bicycle (and by foot of course) generates no air pollution, no carbon or nitrogen emissions and little noise pollution. Reducing emissions and noise are critical to slowing climate change, reducing incidents of asthma and other upper respiratory and cardio-vascular disease, and reducing sleep disorders. While emission standards and cleaner vehicles can greatly reduce certain emissions, reducing carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and ground level ozone through tailpipe-focused measures alone is proving exceedingly difficult. These emissions are growing rapidly in South African cities as the use of private cars increases. Sleep deprivation is also a problem of growing seriousness, the medical significance of which is only beginning to be understood.
In addition, bicycles (and pedestrians) are more efficient users of scarce road space than private motor vehicles, helping to combat congestion. Bicycles use less than a third of the road space used by private cars, and the space needed to park bicycles is even 15 times less than the space needed to park a car alongside the road.

Further, bicycling is the most efficient and environmentally sustainable means of making short trips. While many work-commutes in South African cities are perhaps too long to take by bicycle, many trips to the shops, to friends, to the beach or to the rail station are less than 5 km. Forget riding to work and just ride…
And of course there’re the added benefits of bicycling being affordable, accessible, and available to almost anyone (including people who do not or cannot drive), contributing to a shared sense of public space. Bicycle technology is understandable, users are able to keep their own vehicles on the road, health and fitness is improved by its use, and this mode of transport facilitates and necessitates encounters with other people, encouraging social integration. Not to mention the fact that bicycle users seldom cause the deaths of other road users.

Yet, millions of bicycles lie in our collective garages, scorned as transport modes and operated only as sports equipment.

South Africa has significant potential to become a cycling country. Not only does national policy support bicycle transport (non-motorised transport), but by and large we have good weather and a population who enjoys sport and exercise. 35 000 cyclists enter the Cape Argus / Pick ’n Pay cycle tour in Cape Town every March, but few become bicycle commuters when the tour is over. The reason most cyclists provide is that it’s too dangerous to ride on our roads, because of the volume of motorised traffic. Our cities’ lack of coherent bicycle infrastructure and secure bicycle parking, prohibition of bicycles on most public transport (excluding Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus service and the Rustenburg Rapid Transport project), long travel distances, sprawl, and aggressive, entitled motorised drivers, do not help.

Encouraged by the large percentages of bicycle commuters in wealthy European cities (some 38% of trips are made by bicycle in Copenhagen, for example), South African bicycle advocates and planners have focused on these cities’ high-quality bicycle lanes as the intervention we need most. Yet traffic laws too have a significant impact on bicycle safety – and once implemented, have a potentially wider impact than the limited geographic impact of bicycle lanes (which we do need, too).

In South Africa private cars and bicycles are defined in law as ‘vehicles’, and the some road rules apply to both. Respect for each other on the road is a pre-requisite for safety. One of the most important factors in sharing the road is the gap or clearance required when motorised vehicles overtake bicycles. A motorised vehicle passing a cyclist at 80 km/h or more causes turbulence, making cycling unstable and a cyclist may veer into the driver’s path.

In Europe a number of countries have enacted a specific minimum passing distance. These distances vary from 1 m (in the Netherlands and France) to 1.5 m (in Spain). In the United States, 15 states require a passing distance of 3 feet (about 1 m). South Africa does not have a minimum safe passing distance. The requirement of a specific passing distance would make enforcement and prosecution easier, instead of the vague notion of ‘a safe distance’ in regulation 298. More importantly, a regulation requiring a minimum safe passing distance of 1.5 metres would make roads safer for cyclists.

The Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works is considering legislation that will require a clearance of at least 1.5 m. This may be a difficult law to enforce, however, if every licensed driver of a motor vehicle can be aware of this clearance required, safer cycling will benefit. In France where this law applies, for example, the respect between motor vehicle and cyclist is impeccable. If a driver knocks over a cyclist, the driver is deemed to be fault. Not so in South Africa, where cyclists are fair game. The K53 Manual for learner drivers could also be updated with respect to non-motorised transport, and learner drivers could be asked compulsory questions concerning sharing the road with all road users.

Can anyone argue with a mode of transport that encourages equitable use of road space and public resources? That’s available to almost anyone, that facilitates personal mobility that’s low-carbon and low-environmental impact? That’s cheap, low-maintenance, portable and convenient – and easily integrated with public transport? That leads tolerance, patience and personal and environmental good health? And that’s almost guaranteed to get you to your destination in a good mood. The bicycle won’t solve all of the world’s problems, but it could very well solve some of yours.

by By Gail Jennings. Louis de Waal is founder and chairman of the Bicycling Empowerment Network, and has cycled every single Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour. Louis de Waal will be discussing the possibilities of a cycling future at the Southern African Transport Conference to be held at the CSIR International Convention Centre from 9 to 12 July 2012. For more information and registration to the conference, visit The annual Southern African Transport Conference is headlined “Getting Southern Africa to Work” and will ask how transport can contribute towards the economic and social growth of this region by tackling critical transport issues through a series of action-based networking events, plenary sessions, panel discussions and workshops.



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