Marcela Guerrero Casas
Marcela Guerrero Casas

Pedalling our way into a sustainable future

This weekend I’m sure I wasn’t the only one imagining what the M3 and other major routes around the Cape Peninsula would be like if hordes of people ditched their cars and cycled to work on Monday morning.

I took part in the Cape Town Cycle Tour, which is one of those eye-opening experiences that reveal the size of our roads and how they connect our city (and in some instances how they keep us separated). In addition to the joy of engaging with the immense beauty of Cape Town in silence, clean air and with other people, it is a reminder that despite the seemingly insurmountable distances and topographical challenges, this city can actually be travelled through on two wheels with no motor.

A highway full of bicycles is something almost otherworldly to behold.

And so I, like many others who dream of a more bicycle-friendly place, wonder: what is the trick to making cycling a widespread form of movement in South African cities? It seems completely doable when surrounded by 30 000 others enjoying the ride, but the reality is we do not seem ready as a society to engage in the types of change that are required for transformation in the realm of urban mobility. A reliable public transport system that caters to all and an environment that enables a shift from the private vehicle to public and non-motorised transport is of course no easy feat, but it is critical to the survival of our cities and we need to make our leaders aware that it is non-negotiable.

Unlike this past Sunday, the roads of Cape Town are usually characterised by traffic, fumes, congestion and road rage. Logic would suggest that getting on a bicycle would be a good way to avoid much of this trauma. Unfortunately, for most people this is not a viable option. While some road infrastructure has been built and some organisations have invested in an enabling environment for their workers to cycle to work, a green lane here and a parking rack and shower there aren’t going to cut it. What we need is a sense of urgency.

Although it has been widely acknowledged that climate change is the single biggest challenge of our time and that transportation is responsible for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, we still don’t take it seriously.

Cape Town Cycle Tour, March 6 2016. (Marcela Guerrero Casas)

Cape Town Cycle Tour, March 6 2016. (Marcela Guerrero Casas)

Partly it is because the problem feels too large, impossible to tackle, and it may seem that our individual behaviour is insignificant; partly it is as a result of our acceptance of an ill society as normal. It’s a bit like eating badly and becoming unfit; you forget what it was like to be healthy and strong and so you put up with all the ailments and challenges that a sick body brings about.

Our streets are ill with pollution, with congestion and with a sense of anger at all times. And unless we all pitch in – in whichever way or form we can – that “organ” of our society will continue to become more ill until it’s too late. Cycling is one way to help regain a sense of normality, health and, yes, inner happiness. All those clichés about riding bicycles are true and we have the power to pedal towards them.

It is, of course, not just about cycling – it’s about demanding that our governments and leaders guarantee the provisions for sustainable mobility that can create the type of healthy and welcoming streets that can lead to a more productive and respectful society. From a public transport system that caters to the majority, to programmes that engage citizens like Open Streets Days, there are many ways and forms to encourage sustainable transport and to ensure that events like the Cape Town Cycle Tour are a catalyst for the transformation of our streets on a permanent basis.

  • Charlotte

    We watched the last lap of the cycle tour from a balcony on the Sea Point beachfront about 1 kilometre from the finish.
    What was very moving was to see 3 bicycles riding abreast and close to each other – except that the middle rider was not cycling. He was just sitting on the saddle. The two men on either side of him each had a firm hand on either of his shoulders – so that, even though he was not pedaling – they were still operating as a team and coming in to the finish line as such.
    Whatever had gone wrong, of course we did not know. But it was so inspiring to watch the three cyclists (even though the one was out of operation) coming in and making it to the end – still as a team.

  • Rory Short

    I live in Jhb. I cycled to work in the 70’s. I now have multiple sclerosis which has somewhat disabled my legs. I now ride an electrically powered tricycle and have become very aware of the appalling condition of many of our suburban roads . A tricycle is fine on a flat or slightly cambered surface but as your center of gravity is far from the ground when you are riding it, it easily tips over if the road camber is too great. This is the situation at the gutter edges of many of our roads. As a tricycle does not have shock absorbers rough road surfaces are a pain, most of our roads are painfully rough. These factors alone detract from the pleasure of tricycling to say nothing of the severe lack of cycle ways.