Home of the world’s biggest cycle race, yet where are all the cycle commuters?

Richard McBurney is a London resident who has been living in Cape Town for around a year and a half. In this fascinating guest blog, he describes the enormous potential for cycling in South Africa’s second biggest city.

Every March the Cape Argus cycle tour rolls into Cape Town, South Africa. It’s the world’s largest individually timed road race with over 35,000 cyclists taking part. Roads are closed and cyclists dominate the city and peninsula. This is a complete contrast to the rest of the year when cyclists are a rare sight in the city centre.

The Cape Argus is an amazing 110km route, starting in the centre of Cape Town then snaking out of the city past the magnificent Table Mountain National Park and along the coast roads of the peninsula. Having taken part on two occasions I can see why this tour attracts so many South Africans and cyclists from all over the world. It has a truly special atmosphere and is a well-managed event. Clearly Cape Town as host to the Argus has a love of cycling.

My wife and I moved to Cape Town almost 2 years ago. Moving from London and regularly commuting by bike we brought our bikes with us. Yet our bikes seem to be spending far too much time in our store room reserved for weekends. Our main means of transport is now the car, backed up by a scooter. We’ve found ourselves questioning this: what’s changed? We live the same distance from the office here in Cape Town as we did in London. The weather is better, the scenery much better. So why are there so few cycle commuters in Cape Town? 

It’s a fact that cycling is considered to be faster than driving for distances up to five kilometres, which incidentally is the distance between the centre of Cape Town and many surrounding neighbourhoods such as Sea Point, Gardens and Bantry Bay. This is ideal for many people to cycle to work, yet I only know two friends that commute by bike more than twice a week. In my office of 20 people, many of whom live within the magic five km radius, not one arrives by bike. In the city a cyclist is a rare sight; I’ve found that cycling appears to be mainly for sport and competition. It’s almost frowned upon to be cycling without donning a full lycra body suit and clipping into the latest carbon fibre racer!

By way of an explanation, my initial thoughts are that it’s more than just a lack of cycle lanes and a lack of good public transport. Safety is a big concern here – the drivers are pretty wild. Being knocked off or even having your bike stolen en route is a valid concern. Geography is a factor, as Cape Town sits in a bowl below Table Mountain. Although the city centre is reasonably flat there are some pretty steep hills on one side that require Chris Hoy-sized thighs to pedal up! There are also issues such as ensuring that the correct facilities are provided for cyclists in the workplace – no showers or storage facilities would certainly put people off. It could also be a cultural thing – a love of the car, or an attitude whereby travel by alternative means such as cycling and walking is reserved for the poor, i.e. those that cannot afford a car. Car travel is still seen by many as the safest and preferred mode of transport. Unfortunately this love of the car coupled with a route from the garage to indoor office parking does create a lack of interaction at street level. In some areas there is a lack of public transport. In my area the streets are lined with bus stops, and people looking out wearily for the number 9 that is yet to arrive! The bus infrastructure has been built but the buses only run in certain areas. Minibus taxis are cheap and regular although they come with safety concerns and a stigma that they are the “poor man’s” transport.

This is a complex city in its diverse population, history and location. Apartheid has created a split in the areas that different groups of people live in, and its spatial legacy remains. In simple terms, Apartheid law meant that some Capetonian residents were forced out of their homes in the city centre and relocated to informal settlements (townships) 15km out of the city centre. Whites remained within areas close to the city centre. The physical distance between informal settlements, for example Guguletu and Khayelitsha, has served to separate the mass black population from economic opportunities, with the only practical means of transport being minibus taxi, or slow, old trains. It may be too far to regularly commute by bike for many, but with the addition of cycling infrastructure, or some sort of bike and bus combination, or even electric bikes, I wonder if this could make a progressive change for so many township residents. With much of the poorer population living on the periphery of the city and largely unable to afford private vehicles, many people in Cape Town and across South Africa are deprived of access to opportunities. Cycling presents a more affordable way for people to increase their mobility and access more of those opportunities.

The full explanation of  why there is a lack of cycle commuting in Cape Town is complex. But, looking ahead, what can a city like Cape Town do to encourage more people to discover the many benefits of commuting by bike? There are a number of encouraging signs that change is on the way.

The Cape Town Bicycle Map’. in print since 2011, is now available online in both website and smart phone editions. This map illustrates suitable cycling routes, secure places to leave your bike and the locations of bike-friendly businesses.

‘Commuting Friday’, is an incentive to use non-motorised transport. Bike-friendly coffee shops and cafes are offering reduced price coffees or a 5% discount on breakfast if you have cycled to the venue.

‘Moonlight mass’ is a casual night bicycle ride under a full moon once a month. Inaugurated as a social experiment on Twitter, the ride has been gaining popularity, and attracting hundreds of riders, which is helping to raise awareness of cycling in the city.

‘Up Cycles’ is Cape Town's first drop-and-go bike rental company. With two sites along the seafront, cyclists can enjoy a casual ride from just outside the city centre to the beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay. With reasonably low prices (about £3 per hour) this is a great way to encourage cycling, although more for leisure than commuting.

‘The Big Ride in’, first envisioned by the founders of the Cape Argus cycle tour, is inclusive of any type of non-motorised transport, and promotes the use of the cycle lanes along the west coast, linking the city centre to the suburbs. The West Coast bicycle lane has been a success, although there have been some problems with bicycle access to trains and buses, to help link journeys. However, folding bikes are allowed access at all times and can be rented.

Finally, the Pedal Power Association has run an awareness campaign, handing out car bumper stickers reminding drivers to give cyclists more road space.

All these schemes demonstrate that change is in the air, and cycling is gaining in popularity. Many of the benefits of cycling are well-documented and are the same for all cities, such as reducing congestion  and pollution, and providing cheaper travel. In my opinion, the benefits for Cape Town would be so much more extensive. The streets would become safer, as well as more interactive, vibrant and liveable, and many people would access opportunities that are currently out of reach. I’m hopeful that , with the introduction of more cycle lanes and the rising popularity of cycling for more than recreational use, Cape Town has a bright future on two wheels.

If you would like to be a guest blogger on cyclelifestyle.co.uk, please get in touch on info@cyclelifestyle.co.uk - we'd be delighted to hear from you.

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