1. When did you first start cycling regularly, and why?
Ironically, only when I moved back to Jo’burg from London. Initially I bought a bike because I came across this cute upcycled vintage bicycle which captured my heart. I’d ride it around on weekends a bit, always fearful that something might go wrong and struggling up hills (it has no gears!). Then I started to join Critical Mass rides at the beginning of 2012, and I experienced this real sense of joy and freedom spinning around Jo’burg’s streets on my bike. Bit by bit, I started to realise that it was really possible to get around by bicycle, especially considering that the places I live, work and socialise in Jo’burg are all pretty close to one another.
In 2013 I started cycling to work about once a week, and now I do this almost every day. It took me a while because my confidence as a cyclist built up quite slowly, and it took me a little while to work out all the logistics of what I needed in order to choose cycling as a form of transport. Once I had all that in place (a repair kit, a rack to transport my stuff, lights and helmets, and a little refresher pack in my office), I felt ready to go for it. Now my daily cycles to and from work and some of the best moments of my week. I don’t have to deal with parking stress or angst about sitting in traffic not moving. And, by cycling I burn an extra few calories too.
2. How do your family/friends feel about you cycling?
My partner is jealous that I get to cycle to work every day. Nothing would make him happier than leaving his car at home, or selling it for good, but he works about 40kms from where we live, so he can only manage an epic cycle commute around once a week. My brother is addicted to cycling as a sport – he’s the type that is up at 5.30 for 100+ kms more than once a week. I think he is quite surprised to see that his bookish little sister now commutes to work by bike, and although he reminds me to be safe I think he’s quite proud of me. Some of my colleagues at work are incredulous. They tell me it’s not safe and that the roads are too dangerous. But then they are the ones who also complain about traffic and parking all the time! In any event, the more my colleagues see me arrive in my corridor with my bike, the more they realise that commuter cycling is totally doable, and that I am fine. I would be so happy to see them give it a try some day too.
3. Do you feel cycling is dangerous? Why or why not?
I am sometimes concerned about being a woman alone on the street. The epidemic of violence against women in this country might influence some women to think that commuting by bicycle is unsafe. I’m aware of the potential of risk but I have not had any overtly threatening experiences apart from the kind of verbal harassment and catcalling that is commonplace in South Africa (indeed, many other places too). Unfortunately, South African women pedestrians are quite used to being verbally harassed and it happens to us when we’re on bicycles too. Of course such behaviour is unacceptable, but I can’t control how men speak to me or single-handedly take away their sense of entitlement, and I’m not interested in having random arguments with strangers, so I try not to let it get to me.
I have a right to be mobile and independent on the streets, be it on foot or on two wheels. I won’t let anyone make a victim out of me, or make me feel intimidated or paranoid just because they think they have a right to make a comment about my body or my appearance when I cycle past. I won’t let that kind of backwards behaviour affect my right to do as I wish, including riding my bike to work, and elsewhere! Plus, it’s usually pedestrians verbally harassing, so even though I’m not super speedy, I can literally let it all whizz by.
When I’m out and about on my own I try to stay alert and avoid any scenario that might make me feel nervous, like going down an unknown street or past an abandoned building. For now, I’ve decided on a system that I’m comfortable with, which feels like a good balance between being free and doing as I wish and not putting myself in a position that might be more risky: My solution is that I will only cycle alone on my own after dark if it’s on a tried and tested route that I know really well. Otherwise, I’ll cycle with my partner or friends at night, or make sure that I factor in time to cycle home after work, so that I can then pick up my car if I have evening plans in places that are new or too far away for me to enjoy cycling to.
Cycling is not dangerous. I think people who brand it dangerous are just caught up in paranoid world views. Unfortunately the realities of our sexist, violent society means that women commuter cyclists should exercise due caution and thoughtfulness in their movements, but they should definitely not let any “mean world syndrome” stop them from giving it a go and getting on their bikes.
4. How do you feel about cycling? Why?
I like it. It makes me feel good in so many ways. It’s a lovely way to get around and it feels amazing to use a car less and less. I like using my legs to get from one place to another. I like the feelings of independence and mobility that come with commuter cycling. I like feeling my lungs working when I go up a hill, and I love the wind in my face when I’m freewheeling down the other side. My mind feels calmer when I’m on a bike as opposed to sitting in a car. I feel like I connect with my neighbourhood more. I’ll smile at the kids playing on the pavement. I’m more likely to stop in at my very local corner shop, or the street traders, to pick up some veggies for dinner or a litre of milk. I’m more likely to greet my neighbours or stop for a quick hello. Being on a bicycle makes me feel more integrated in my community. If I was in a car all the neighbour might get is a wave, and I’d probably drive to the nearest supermarket for dinner. I’m glad that I do those things less, now, thanks to my yellow bike.
5. How do you interact with other traffic on the road?
When possible, I plan my commutes to miss the worst of rush hour traffic, but that’s not always possible, so I just cycle when I need to cycle. Depending on the road, it can be worse when there is a lot of traffic, but it can also be better (e.g., when the traffic is at a standstill and I can easily weave through and past the gridlock).
It would be great if there was at least more awareness about the rights of cyclists to be on the roads. Jo’burg traffic can be really aggressive. I’ve had taxis hoot at me to get out their way. This said I find that taxi drivers are in fact very aware of what’s happening on the road, as they are always on the lookout for new customers, so they are more likely to see me and give me space. It’s the single drivers in their cars, busy texting while they go, that really worry me. They’re much less likely to notice a woman on a yellow bike! Treating drivers with respect and politeness always works – I say thank you when they let me in, and I often engage directly using eye contact or hand gestures to let them know my intended move. Bus drivers – especially Metro bus drivers are really awful. They need to be trained about the rules of engagement with cyclists on the road. I’ve had big buses turn right in front of me when it’s my right of way, and zoom past me extremely close at breakneck speed.
Traffic makes me nervous sometimes, but my strategy is to be as visibly confident as possible. I take the space I need on the road and I don’t squeeze too far to the left (this gives the message that I think I don’t have a right to be there, and then aggro drivers try whizz past me). I use hand signals to let cars know where I’m going, or if I need them to just give me a chance to get across or whatever, and when there is this direct communication, things work out just fine. At tricky intersections, I take extra time to be safe and make sure that I cross only when there is a nice gap, so I don’t have to sprint (I’m not really the sprinting type). I’m not a daredevil and I’m not in a rush – I’d rather arrive at work a few minutes later after having waited for the right time to cross or merge, than take a risk and maybe not make it at all!
6. What is the thing you like least about commuting by bicycle?
In all honesty, Jo’burg’s hills can be a real challenge. I live in Brixton – the third highest ridge in Jozi, so enough said! But I usually cycle up the longer, but less steep route, so its totally doable. In this town, gears are a must unless you’re 20 years old or a super athlete (I am neither)!
Heavy summer rain is also scary. When I see a big thunderstorm brewing, I try to get home before it hits, because getting caught in a road with an overflowing storm drain would be no fun. I carry a little fold up raincoat with me when I cycle, just in case there is rain and I’m not able to delay my journey home. I’m looking forward to the Jozi winter, as I won’t have to stare at the sky trying to predict when the storm will hit.
7. Do you feel that being a cyclist has changed your life? If so, how?
Yes. I’ve made awesome friends through commuter cycling, and by doing it I feel like I am able to align my values with my actions and lifestyle that little bit more. I’m changing my lifestyle really slowly – as I described, I still drive at night and to appointments more than 5/6kms away – but I really hope to be able to gently work up to more commuter cycling over greater distances. Maybe one day I can sell my car?
8. Does your employer encourage cycling? If so, how?
My employer (Wits University) has a long way to go to encourage cycling among students and staff. It has made some moves in the right direction, but there is still a lot to be done. Cycling should be an obvious choice for students and staff who live near the university in neighbourhoods like Braamfontein, Westdene, Brixton, Melville and Hillbrow. But campus is designed for cars. There is little safe bike parking. There is no repair centre. These are easy things to fix, and I really hope that the University will see the opportunity to not only fix them, but really start to promote commuter cycling as a cheap, green, and enjoyable way to get around.
9. Do you think your city can become a bicycle friendly city? How?
Any city can become bicycle friendly, if the decision makers and policy implementers decide it should be so. If the City of Johannesburg was really committed to non-motorised transport and cycling for everyday mobility, it would do everything in its power to keep existing commuter cyclists safer, and promote cycling as a way of getting around. It would put up signage reminding cars that cyclists are present on the roads, it would build cycle lanes and cycle parking at key places, it would let commuters take their bicycles on buses and trains, it would materialise safer cycling routes across the city, and more.
The city needs to see cycling as integral to all of its public transport plans, but instead it treats it as an afterthought to its BRT system. In Cape Town, alongside many new bus lanes, the City also built beautiful and safe cycle lanes. But Jo’burg didn’t bother. City officials seem to talk a lot about commuter cycling but do very little. If the Mayor himself commuted to work by bicycle, and forced all of his staff to do the same once a week, I’m pretty sure that the city would very quickly become commuter cycling friendly – but until they understand first-hand what commuter cyclists go through, I doubt they will find the political will to make it happen.