Category Archives: South Africa

Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

I just got back from a week in Seville, Spain at the Velo-City global bicycling conference. Velo-City began as a european bicycling conference in 1980 and was held bi-annually since 1987. As of last year, it became an annual event and opened its doors to presenters from around the world.

This is great progress. However, to what extent are issues in Africa relevant to those in Europe? Can Cape Town learn from Amsterdam or Dallas learn from Copenhagen? How much is “knowledge sharing” between such radically different contexts valuable?

At this year’s event, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the few folks who had made the trip up from the lovely “country” of Africa since it is a part of the world which is still a bit of fuzzy territory for me. Most of these people were from English speaking countries in southern Africa, and many of them were ex-pats themselves working on various bicycle related projects.

It became rapidly clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issues people are addressing in Africa are in a completely different universe from those in Europe.

In the global north, cycling is seen as a means of urban transport which is promoted mainly by city planners as a means to reduce motorized transportation for health, “liveability”, and environmental sustainability. Most of those of us involved in this movement are well educated and generally reasonably well off as are most of those actually cycling. Most people have access to other means of transport such as busses or cars and are choosing the bicycle, perhaps in addition to other modes.

By stark contrast, African projects were dealing with people (often women) who were typically rural, poor, and do not have access to other means of transportation. The goal of many of these projects is to give people greater mobility, thereby decreasing the amount of time necessary to access basic needs like jobs, water, food, etc. Most people working in this sector come from international development, not urban planning.

This contrast was perhaps starkest in the fourth plenary session with Kayemba Patrick from ITDP in Uganda and Joaquin Nieto from the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development discussing economic benefits of cycling.

Nieto spoke about how European bikeshare programs create jobs for cities (largely through what I would consider to be high degrees of inefficiencies in redistribution and maintenance). Patrick spoke about how getting access to a bike reduces the amount of time women in rural Uganda have to spend getting water and access to economic opportunities. They were then engaged in a discussion afterwards where it was clear that neither one of them really had any idea how to find any sort of common ground.

Another strange pairing was between Marie Kåstrup from Copenhagen and Gail Jennings from Cape Town speaking about women and bicycling. Kåstrup spoke about the “cycling girl” narrative in Denmark where woman and cycling are portrayed as soul mates, which logically and intuitively serve as icons for the national past time of cycling. In Denmark, almost as many women bike as men. Jennings talked about how woman are sexualized in their portrayal next to bicycles, with images of women in tight mini-skirts sexually pumping air into tires. In Cape Town, most cyclists are riding for sport- not transport- and about 75% of cyclists are men. Very few women ride bicycles and to do so is to ask for censure at every turn.

The point here is not to get into discussions about the specifics of these issues (I refer you to the people mentioned for those details). My point is more to question what we hope to gain by bringing people together from different contexts and what can be learned from “European best practices” from Copenhagen, Amsterdam or anywhere else.

There is a growing cadre of professionals who would like you to believe that a bicycling culture is something that can be readily “transferred”. It’s easy. Simply find somewhere that lots of people ride bicycles, copy the infrastructure and policy that “worked” there in your home town and then stand back and wait for people to start riding.

But guess what? What works in Copenhagen may not work in Cape Town.

What I heard from many people coming from the global south in particular was that they didn’t really care much about what was going on in Europe. What they wanted was to share knowledge between cities in the global south. South African cities probably have more to learn from cities (and rural areas) in India than from Europe.

The same is likely true in the global north. Gas guzzling Dallas came to Velo-City to learn how car-centric Seville has seen increases in bicycling from 0.5% to 6.6% in the past three years. Dallas planners won’t be making any trips to Copenhagen, even though Danes bike 37% here in the capital city.

A Velo-City global venue may still be useful but we still need to do some thinking around how, exactly, it is useful. In the meantime, we need to be facilitating venues for the sharing of knowledge between similar cities and working to develop context specific solutions from a deep understanding of local needs, not trying to make Cape Town into the next Amsterdam.

Bikeshare for robust cycle cultures

There are currently 238 bikeshare schemes in the world. This appears to be increasing at roughly 50% per year. If this rate continues, we will have some 1.200 bikeshare schemes by 2014. The next areas of major growth is in the US, Canada, and Australia, all of which also have pitiful cycling rates of around 1% of people biking in most cities. It will be exciting to see how these cities adapt European models for their local context.

But w hat about rapidly developing countries like India, China, and South Africa that have high cycling rates now but that are losting cyclists as the economy picks up and more people move to cars? They have many large contextual differences with Europe, but if they are to take any inspiration from bikesharin models, maybe they should consider looking at countries with robust cycling cultures like Holland, Denmark, and Germany- who are trying to keep people on bikes- not those with few cyclists like France, UK, or Spain who are trying to move people onto bikes.

Early innovation in bikesharing came out of robust cycling cultures like Holland and Denmark where about 20-40% of the population bikes. Most of the early growth in recent, high-tech bikesharing has come out of countries like France, Spain, and the UK where only  1% of the population rides a bike for transport.

Another big expanding market will be in rapidly developing countries like Brazil, China, South African and India which all have very high cycling rates which range from roughly 20-70% of the population. These are mainly ‘captive users’ who bike because they can’t afford other options.  As people get richer, they move to motorized vehicles, in part for speed and in part to gain higher status. These cities will need to develop their own local models, which are only just beginning to crop up in cities like Hangzhou, Buenos Aires, New Delhi, and Taipei.

These new models should develop from the local context up. However, if they are to take any leads from European cities, maybe they should look to those with a high modal split, like Denmark and Holland, not a low modal split like France or the UK.

In Holland, the OV-Fiets system is hooked into the national train company. Many people live and work in different cities, but when you have a huge number of cyclists, it is hard to fit them all onto the trains. Anyone who has ridden a train in Holland knows that there is virtually no integration for cyclists on the trains. It costs an exorbitant amount, you have to put them into the entryway of the car with no special racks (except on long distance international trains), the elevators are small, and none of this is easy given how heavy Dutch bikes are.

The solution, until recently, was to buy two bikes- one for the ‘home’ end and one for the ‘work’ end. You then bike to one station, ride to your destination city, and then pick up your second bike to ride onward.  OV-Fiets is integrated with the train operator. You pay only €10 per year in membership and then €3 per ride for up to 24 hours. This seems to be well enjoyed and used by Dutch I have spoken with.

Odense in Denmark is trying a similar concept geared toward commuters that is set to launch this spring. This program will cost you about €7 per week, €13 per month, or €33 per year. In the meantime, since October of last year, they have been using a phone based service where you pay about €2,50 per hour as a flat usage fee that comes off your phone bill.  JC Decaux, who runs many existing services, will operate it. It’s not clear to me how well used this service is since I haven’t met anyone who has used it yet.

Germany, with about 10% of the population biking, has NextBike and Call-A-Bike which I have written about in an earlier post. These are both floating systems, with no parking stations. Both use cell phones, not smart cards. Call-A-Bike is integrated with the DB train system and NextBike is a private operator, whose money comes from advertising and usage fees. NextBike is €1 per hour or €5 per day. Call-A-Bike is €0.08 per minute, €9-12 per day, and €45-60 per week. You can also pay €27-36 per year and then get the first 30 minutes free. NextBike uses extremely cheap bikes with no technology, while Call-A-Bike uses extremely expensive, high-tech bikes. Call-A-Bike bikes have to be placed in certain areas, while NextBike’s can be placed anywhere in the central city. Anecdotal evidence from one user suggests that forcing people to return Call-A-Bike bikes to a certain location is a deterrent, however given the spread of both of these systems throughout a multitude of cities in Germany and abroad, they must be doing something right.

These services pricing models are unlike systems like the oft touted London, Paris or Barcelona schemes which typically cost more like 50€ per year where the first 30 minutes is free and then there is a tiered hourly pricing thereafter. These systems for robust cycling communities are also more focused on daily commuters and many use cell phones, not smart cards. The German ones have also experimented with floating models which do not require parking spaces, and may help with the distribution issue.

As rapidly developing cities begin to implement bikeshare schemes, we will start to see new paradigms emerging. These contexts are dramatically different in that they consist of large, dense, cities coupled with cheap labor, high theft issues, massive social inequity, completely different cultural norms, and limited technology and data access. These cities have high cycling rates now but they are all dropping due to all manner of motorized alternatives, just as we saw in western cities 50 years ago with the entrance of cars.

This context provides its own limitations while also opening up new possibilities and local models will have to be developed. But if there is anywhere to look for inspiration in Europe, it could be from systems where cycling rates are high and municipalities are trying to keep them that way, not cities where rates are low and they are trying to increase them.