Last modified on Thu 27 Jun 2019 16.31 BST
“The writer counted, in the space of only four minutes, 93 native cyclists riding past the Astra theatre,” wrote a journalist for the Star newspaper in July 1940. Standing almost 80 years later on the same corner of Louis Botha Avenue at the same time and day of the week – 6.30pm on a Monday – it is hard to imagine. The theatre is long gone and not a single cyclist is to be seen on the car-choked thoroughfare.
What happened to Johannesburg’s once vibrant commuter cycling culture? The dominance of the automobile marginalised the bicycle in many cities around the world through the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s but that process was accelerated in South Africa by apartheid. When policies of spatial segregation forcibly moved black people to faraway townships at the periphery of the city, the distance between work and home increased dramatically and cycling collapsed as an everyday practice.
Twenty-five years after apartheid’s fall, those spatial and economic inequalities remain entrenched in the city and continue to shape how people get around.
It may be said of the Johannesburg child that he learns to cycle before he can walk
1903 newspaper columnist
The story of Johannesburg starts in 1886 with the discovery of gold. As prospectors from around the world flooded in to seek their fortunes, what had once been farmland was transformed in the space of a few years into a thriving city.
The economic boom meant residents could afford new consumer goods that conveyed modernity – the bicycle among them. By 1900, Johannesburg was known as a true cycling city. Writing in 1903, a newspaper columnist, wrote: “There are few cities in South Africa or in any other part of the world where a large[r] number of cyclists are to be found as in Johannesburg. Nearly every third inhabitant rides a bicycle, and it may be said of the Johannesburg child that he learns to cycle before he can walk.”
Bicycles were status symbols – fashionable consumer goods for the wealthy to tour around on and use for sport. White cycling associations fought for cyclists’ rights on the streets and the colonial authorities devised policy incentives to boost their use. The city council paid its civil servants a subsidy if they rode to work, and the central railway station planned a large cycle parking facility. Even the exclusive Rand Club installed a bike rack.
The freedom the bicycle gave black people wasn’t always welcome though. Using allegations that “natives” stole bicycles and rode them dangerously, the Rand Pioneers, representing the mining elite, campaigned in 1905 for a citywide law requiring black cyclists to wear a badge on their left arm to indicate they had council authorisation. It was soon retracted by the British colonial government.
The arrival of the motor car changed everything. For white Johannesburgers, car ownership by black people was necessarily a social threat. One car licensing officer argued in 1928: “As soon as a native sits in a car, he thinks he has the same rights and privileges, and that he must be treated as a white man. The whole road belongs to him, and everyone else must either stop, or hop out of his way, and if you don’t, you must either risk either being run over or covered up in the dust of his car.”
Car ownership among black South Africans was negligible. The prohibitive costs and the lack of public transport meant cycling grew fast among black working-class South Africans. Bicycles became a low-status form of transport for the poor and oppressed.
How apartheid killed Johannesburg’s cycling culture | The Guardian
Last modified on Thu 27 Jun 2019 16.31 BST “The writer counted, in the space of only four minutes, 93 native cyclists riding past the Astra theatre,” wrote a journalist for the Star newspaper in July 1940. Standing almost 80 years later on the same corner of Louis Botha Avenue at the same time and… [Read More]