“because Amsterdam didn’t used to be Amsterdam either”
When one realises that a cycle lane barely wide enough for a car can move as many people as a four-lane highway – and in total silence – it is hard to think of sprawling, car-dependent societies as a utopia of personal freedoms. Brett Petzer shares his experiences and thoughts on planning the Cycling City.
By Brett Petzer
I knew before arriving in Amsterdam that my time there would be a turning point, personally and professionally. What I had not anticipated was that watching how the Dutch move would produce a political shift.
However, it is impossible for anyone interested in cities to see the effects of people-centred mobility on an entire society and its built environment and not become mildly radicalised.
When one realises that a cycle lane barely wide enough for a car can move as many people as a three-lane highway – and in total silence – it is hard to think of sprawling, car-dependent societies as a utopia of personal freedoms. When one sees Dutch children get given a ‘set of wheels’ at age 7 that confers, for very little money, the same degree of freedom that a car might give to a South African child (for very much more money) at 17, it is hard to think that some rules are not worthwhile. And when one sees how few freeway lanes serve large Dutch towns, compared to the equivalent here, it is difficult to accept that the Dutch may well be paying less to move around their cities and countryside than South Africans do, at purchasing parity.
In short, my month spent in the Netherlands led me to understand that a nation in which humble, cheap, occasionally arduous transport is the norm is a nation in which adults get incidental, gentle and constant exercise until very late in their lives, and are inducted into it so early that it never registers in the mind as a massive public health intervention. It also became normal to hear the sound of running water and birdsong in a dense city of 700,000 people, as literally hundreds of thousands of residents and commuters filter down streets and canals in near-silence, broken only by the occasional bike bell. It took some time to get used to seeing children playing in a street, as you might see in Woodstock, Cape Town, without checking whether one of them was old enough to pull the others out of the way if a car should come careening through quiet residential lanes – and to understand that Dutch children are not trained to think of roadspace as dangerous, to be approached only when necessary and with extreme caution.
Over my time in the Netherlands, I saw an entire public realm gentled by bicycle infrastructure, because to a South African eye, this infrastructure carries a message, whether it is in use or not. It says, startlingly, that human bodies are an important and obvious means of transport, deserving of all the help that architecture, urban planning, and civil and traffic engineering can provide.
There comes a point in all accounts of the Dutch achievement in cycling called the Anywhere But Here objection, when one is told that cities in the English-speaking world/the developing world/post-conflict societies or cities that are hilly/sprawling/too snowy/too humid can never be Amsterdam. Bike activists have learnt to relax about the ABH objection, because Amsterdam didn’t used to be Amsterdam either. Like Copenhagen, Amsterdam only turned itself around well into the Hippie era of the late 1960s and early 1970s – before then, both cities were bulldozer-happy ring road builders who were motorising and modernising in lockstep.
But something changed in Amsterdam, and in Copenhagen, that never changed elsewhere in the West, and in societies that considered themselves to be of the West, such as Apartheid South Africa. Radical activists in various groupings began to protest against the human cost of car dominance, and ask why it should be that cars receive so much state support and such lavish cross-subsidisation from the whole of society when the technology demanded the regular sacrifice of human lives.
Perhaps we asked that question here in Cape Town; perhaps it got lost among the very big and desperate struggles of the Apartheid era. But we have arrived, over decades, at a place where the loss of 15,000 lives per year on South African roads (WHO, 2011) seems unavoidable. Every year, a smallish stadium’s worth of otherwise healthy people are therefore subject to large steel objects colliding with their bodies (incidentally, at the seventh-highest rate in the world) and killing them. Many are children, most are poor and Black. Apart from this massive loss, there are the tens of thousands of annual deaths from chronic air pollution and the even greater number due to physical inactivity which are the consequence of our mobility mix. South Africa’s exceptionally violent and risk-seeking motorists aside, it takes a trip to a place where an entire country does it differently to understand that we can radically change how we move here and now. We can do this just as we are, spending no more money than we currently spend, by simply getting far more out of our transport budgets than we currently do, and spending far less on transport as individuals.
I wish that I could tell you that time in Amsterdam gave me a toolkit that I could deploy
I wish that I could tell you that time in Amsterdam gave me a toolkit that I could deploy – and that it would simply take sending every transport engineer and planner in the country to elite camps in the wilds of Outer Amsterdam for a Powerpoint-based indoctrination course, led by the excellent @fietsprofessor and @ at the University of Amsterdam.
No such toolkit exists, as each society differs from the Netherlands in its own way, but I can tell you at least a few things. The first is that, for every objection that the terrain and urban fabric of South African cities are uniquely hostile to cycling, I can show you worse elsewhere, with more cycling. For every objection that Cape Town is too hilly, I can show you that precisely none of the business districts and centres of employment in this city of 4 million are not on almost-level ground. For every one who points that Cape Town is too windy or too sprawling, I can point you to Montréal, where many multiples of our bike commuter population tough it out on two wheels in the second-snowiest major city on Earth.
But I must pause at objections that South Africans are too easily humiliated in one another’s gaze, because Dutch culture is fairly unique in its conspicuous non-consumption: the royal family and the Prime Minister are seen cycling everywhere because proving one’s ordinariness is one of the most Dutch practices possible. The fact that the cheapest and humblest form of transport is also de rigueur for everyone must depend in some way on the fact that poverty and humility are not shameful in the Netherlands, where absolute poverty is essentially non-existent and a broad middle class exists at the centre of the national imagination.
We aren’t like that here. South Africa is so massively unequal that much of our poverty is not only absolute but often deadly, and the mobility patterns of the poor mean that few who cycle for transport do so by choice. Add to this our Apartheid spatiality, new interventions notwithstanding, and the prospect for a mass commuter cycling culture looks bleak. However, my initial despondency upon returning from below sea level has shifted as I spend more and more time cycling for transport in wider and wider circles beyond the middle-class enclaves where most of my life takes place. This is because I see cyclists everywhere, and more plastic front-end crates than lycra suits, and I see people take joy in movement who live where the time and space to exercise is probably lacking. I am coming to believe, when I see poor Black men cycling faster than they need to because of the rush of it, before coming to a halt at the intersection, that we could decouple bike culture from discourses of class and race, even before spatial justice arrives in our cities, and understand that human movement can generate joy and pride and identity, and add life-years to our society, if the machines doing it are engineless.
Interventions in Cape Town
What is badly needed if this is to continue is not new cycling infrastructure, easier access to subsidised bicycles or better urban planning along cyclable routes, although all of these would help. I would prioritise two interventions instead.
Firstly, we need simply to end the staggering subsidies paid to car infrastructure by all of us, mainly from general taxation. Private motorists pay nothing like the true cost of freeways and roads, so we all pitch in – making driving cheaper, necessitating more roads. Providing parking for motor vehicles is mandatory in almost all new construction, meaning that all of us subsidise parking, whether we drive or not. Yet if the car trips that are shorter than 5km were replaced with cycling tomorrow, congestion would evaporate. Leave mostly busses, minibus taxis and heavy goods vehicles on the freeways, and we would return to free-flowing traffic.
Secondly, we need to take cycling culture seriously, by investing in behaviour change and vehicle driver education at least as much as invest in building infrastructure. A real turning point in my understanding of the importance of being inducted into cycling by a trusted partner – for many middle-class children, this happens at home, before cycling is left behind as part of childhood. The moving teasers here, here and here, for the film Mama Agatha, tells the story of a 59 year-old Ghanaian ‘community mother’ called Mama Agatha who runs bicycling courses for immigrant women. Mama Agatha’s patient methods are bringing cycling to women who have been shut out of the national biking culture, and thus out of an important way of being Dutch. This inspires me because we can teach cycling here, and we can hand out bicycles, and watch as household budgets expand, health improves and freedom of movement grows. It helps to remember that even in the Netherlands, cycling is not transmitted by osmosis.
If this course interests you, please note that scholarships for tuition and lodging are available until for South African students until 29 October 2015 here.
- Ideas for Cape Town’s communities: From Amsterdam to Cape Town
- World’s largest study on cyclist behaviour: Copenhagen to Cape Town
- Brett Petzer