Bike sharing entrepreneur Jeffrey Mlaudzi sits with one of his rental bicycles in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, South Africa, September 13, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kizito Makoye

JOHANNESBURG - Nxumalo Ndlovu used to catch a bus from his home in Alexandra township to his job in Sandton, a posh city business district. 

But with heavy traffic slowing down the 5-kilometre commute he's found a new way to work: A pioneering township bike rental scheme. 

"I use the bike because I don't want to waste my time sitting in a slow-moving bus," said the 28-year-old. That he gets fitter - and saves money - is just a bonus, he said. 
"The good thing about cycling is that I get to places faster. When people are stuck in traffic I ride past them," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Ndlovu, a salesman at a private firm in Sandton is one of about 100 residents of densely populated Alexandra who now rent bikes each day to commute to work or school, said Jeffrey Mulaudzi, the 27-year-old bicycle evangelist who runs the bike-sharing scheme. 

"The initial idea was to help students who had to travel long distances of up to 8km to school," Mulaudzi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 
But now a range of residents are saving up to 30 percent of their monthly travel costs by cycling to work instead of cramming themselves in buses, he said. 

HILLS TO HEAVIES 

Johannesburg, with its hilly terrain, heavy traffic congestion, sometimes aggressive drivers and reputation for crime, is not an obvious choice for a cycle scheme. 

According to South Africa's 2014 National Household Travel Survey, shared minibus taxis are the main means of transport for 42 percent of households in Johannesburg, with private cars, buses and trains making up much of the rest of the city's transport. 

But Johannesburg also has some of the world's best weather. And as officials put more infrastructure in place to make cycling safer - including new pedestrian and cycle bridges over highways- cycling at least short distances is now becoming more attractive, Mulaudzi said. 

The entrepreneur, who grew up poor in Alexandra, has since 2010 run bike tours of the township for tourists. But in 2014 he launched his broader bike rental scheme, offering cycle rentals for two rand ($0.15) per trip. 

Bike sharing makes sense for the township of half a million residents, he said, not just because the cost of a bicycle is beyond the reach of some residents but because most people have too little space in their homes - many of them barely more than shacks - to safely store a bike. 

Keeping bikes safe at their destination, he said, is usually not a problem because most users have places to lock them up at work or school. 
He rents the cycles without taking any deposit, he said, banking on the community trust and goodwill his project has built up - and on the willingness of the township's gangs to confront thieves. 

"Chances are very slim for the bikes to be stolen. Even if someone steals it we can easily track it down" he said. 
He hopes eventually to earn enough to insure all the bicycles, however, he said. 

FASTER AND FITTER 

Lethabile Thembu, a student in Alexandra who pedals to school in Johannesburg's Randburg area each day, said commuting by bike lets her enjoy the fresh air - and gets her to class early. 

"I don't regret cycling to school because it keeps me fitter, every single day," she said. 

She said riding to school, rather than taking a minibus, saves her mother about 200 rand ($14) each month. 

Mulaudzi said not everyone manages Johannesburg's hills on the cycles. Plenty, he said, push the bikes up hills and then ride back down.  David Du Preez, chairman of Johannesburg Urban Cycling Association, said cycling is a smart way for many people in the city to get around, particularly if their home or destination is off major commuter lines. 

"A cycling journey may be shorter than a (minibus) taxi if a commuter's destination is off the taxi route and the last mile element is a long walk," he said.  

But heavy traffic, speeding drivers, construction zones and other threats remain challenges, he said - though new cycle-friendly infrastructure is helping.  "We want to make Johannesburg a cycle-friendly city by promoting cycling infrastructure, so that people view cycling as a valid way of commuting," he said. 

- REUTERS