Mashaba, vast majority of Joburg bike riders are poor

It’s concerning that Herman Mashaba has cast doubt on the rights of people to walk and cycle in the city, say David du Preez, Njogu Morgan and Muhammed Suleman.

Johannesburg - In his inaugural speech as newly elected mayor of Joburg, Herman Mashaba cast doubt on the rights of people to walk, cycle or use other non-motorised transport in the city.

The building of cycling lanes has gone hand in hand with improvements to pedestrian sidewalks and public space, say the writers. File picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

This is of great concern.

In the speech, he argued: “I was concerned to note that R70 million has been set aside over the next three years for the development of bicycle lanes around our city. I intend putting a halt to this project.

“When every road in Johannesburg is tarred, maybe then we will look at bicycle lanes again.”

But what does the mayor’s statement actually mean for the broader inclusive and sustainable transport agenda that Joburg so direly needs? More specifically, are all projects that include the building of cycling lanes under threat?

Readers may be aware that the building of cycling lanes has gone hand in hand with improvements to pedestrian sidewalks and public space. A case in point is the pedestrian and cycling bridge that links Alexandra to Sandton over the M1 highway.

This is a project that finally allows residents of Alexandra to safely and cheaply gain access to the Sandton business district.

In a resource-constrained context, it is right, of course, to scrutinise how monies are being spent in relation to societal needs.

However, is there a trade-off between improving the safety of people travelling on bicycles who mostly fall into low-income brackets and road development?

In other words, is it incompatible to pour tar on gravelled roads while also ensuring those roads and others can safely be used by people walking, bicycling, in wheel chairs, pushing trolleys and so on?

Furthermore, in such an inclusive scenario, might there not be other cost-effective solutions for road safety on lower motor traffic roads?

In the same speech, adjacent to the bicycle lane announcement, the mayor rightly foregrounded the urgency in improving the plight of the poorest whom he said exist “without even the most basic of services”.

One interpretation here is that like his council alliance partners, he was setting off a binary opposition between investment into bicycle lanes and poverty alleviation.

To use his language, it would not be providing a “basic service” to ensure that the poorest who might travel on bicycles get to their places of work safely.

Studies have shown that the vast majority of everyday bicycle users in Joburg are the poor. The vulnerable. They choose bicycles because they are a more affordable mode of transport than paying public transport fares.

Where would the inconsistency arise then in catering for this community?

An alternative reading might be that the new administration has re-oriented the city towards a full-throttle motorisation agenda. In this trajectory the priority would be improving the flows of any motorised vehicles that the poor would use.

We have already raised the financial benefits that bicycles provide. But is it necessarily true that improving the road network for motorised vehicles will provide the mobility improvements and economic growth that he so seeks?

Is Joburg turning its back on public transport, walking and cycling that so many cities around the world have embraced? These cities have done so not simply because it is fashionable, but because there is clear empirical evidence that providing endlessly for motor vehicles not only leads to gridlock, but poor economic, health, environmental and spatial outcomes.

The reader will be aware of the rapid speed with which China moved towards motorisation. It is now desperately searching for new solutions as many of its cities suffer from congestion and air pollution.

Is this the vision Mashaba has in mind?

Might the mayor have premised his decision on the seemingly low levels of use of the bicycle lanes? To this, we would say as strident critiques of the previous administration’s approach, what we observe is the result of avoidable errors in promoting cycling.

Bicycle use is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. It depends on an interlocking set of features which include but are not limited to well-designed bicycle lanes (which need to form a network or system), considerate road etiquette, access to bicycles, protections in law, education and awareness and integration with public transport.

Finally, what did the mayor mean by equivocating on whether bicycle lanes would be considered once the road tarring was complete? In other words, what criteria will he and his administration use to determine how resources are spent to support the mobility of those who do not travel by motorised vehicles?

To the reader, this clearly appears as if we have been reading tea leaves to predict what the new administration envisions for Joburg with regards to walking, cycling and the use of other forms of non-motorised transport.

In a sense, they might be right because we have not seen any sustainable and inclusive transport and mobility strategy.

Certainly, it has only been a short while since Mashaba took office.

Such a strategy would be underpinned by a robust evidence base on the multiple benefits of walking and cycling.

These include and are not limited to healthier lifestyles, improved air quality, better use of limited urban space, household savings on mobility costs, improved access to economic opportunities and safety for all categories of road users.

It would be understandable that such a strategy would be under development.

We and many others would be delighted to assist in such a process.