People on bicycles in the city itself are as rare as men in 12-inch heels, writes Janet Smith
Johannesburg - Anyone who loves Italian cinema will know Vittorio de Sica’s masterpiece The Bicycle Thief – possibly the greatest movie of all time. In it, we meet a young woman, Maria, who has to pawn her cherished dowry sheets to redeem her beloved Antonio’s bicycle so he can take a job posting bills.
In a tender scene, the couple cycle home with her balanced, lovely, on the handlebars, making one crucial stop – to give money to a clairvoyant who had predicted that Antonio would find work.
But up a ladder on the first day of his new job, Antonio loses his bicycle to a thief, and so unreels a sequence of tales that deliver a moving picture of post-World War II society.
There’s a key moment when Antonio, desperate for his only means of supporting Maria and their small children, consults the seer again. In a psychic flash, he is told: “You’ll find the bike today, or not at all.”
De Sica’s whirl of consciousness, and that pivotal line, came back on the cusp of Cycle Jozi Week, which starts on Monday and goes on till next Sunday’s Freedom Ride from Alex to Sandton.
It echoed against the green asphalt of the city’s new cycle lanes, which were still on the cards a year ago and now exist like pieces of a mini-golf course scattered from the sky.
The seer’s words have to be adapted: You might not find a bike today, or at all.
People on bicycles in the city itself are as rare as men in 12-inch heels. Even messengers use motorbikes, exhaust pipes puffing like cigars.
It feels like unless you’re moneyed, probably white and enjoy the frisson of strapping your helmet on for daring group rides, you’d be a strange sight clipping past the feral gridlock.
And it is “past” the gridlock, not through it, because where the city has laid out lanes, you’re free to speed, show off or track the moments of your own sentience because the cars, trucks and taxis can’t touch you. Technically.
That’s not true of the track in front of the Pick n Pay in Braamfontein, though, as taxis still park there and other drivers hover. You’d battle to edge your silver spurs between that stinking lot.
On the next block, the stench from drains around the fashion stores is so intense that you’d have to use skills to close your nose without using your hands. Not your ordinary pollution, which is vile and everywhere, this one drags brutally up inside your head.
We’re so used to driving with our windows closed and the airconditioning humming, that we don’t know the smell of the city any more.
But could we cycle in it?
Yet, what’s not to like and even admire about the city’s plan for us to be able to spin from Sandton to Alex, Orlando to Noordgesig, out of Rosebank, Braamfontein, Westdene and to spots around the Rea Vaya stations where street furniture and pavements exist? You could be drawn into the romantic vision: affordable transport, lowering greenhouse gases and changing how our children think about using transport.
Soweto’s already got special cycle lanes along Chris Hani Road from Pimville, and people do seem to use them. The Ethekwini Municipality’s doing the same thing, with 40km of lanes planned for Durban. Cape Town’s bicycle routes cover the busy plains through Blouberg to Green Point.
London’s looking to build a radical network of cycle paths above existing rail lines in a long-term project. And Paris is, of course, a city cyclist’s heaven. Even girls in shorts and headphones show no fear.
The idea here is that we would hop off and back onto our bicycles – which would be left in bays on the side of the road – to jump onto and off buses, taxis and trains, leaving our cars in the garage. But sadly, it’s almost laughable to imagine’s Joburg’s gristled city mob doing this.
The only way would be to force us, and we know no one’s got the guts.
* Janet Smith is executive editor of The Star.