Take back the streets

The Argus Cycle Tour is a deceitful mirage. Every year it looks so great, bicycles, bicycles, bicycles. Every year like a fool I think maybe it could represent a local sustainable transport tipping point; that at least some will find a second life as honest hardworking commuter-bikes.

But they just don't. South Africans don't like to bike-to-work. Or to the shop down the road. Or anywhere sensible really. As a nation, we kind of despise two wheels.

This year I've been spared the sight of all those twinkly silver spokes and lycra-ed thighs evaporating from Cape Town's streets 24 hours later like the morning dew, because I'm 10 000 miles away in Portland, Oregon, north-western United States.

Yet bikes have never been more on my mind: Portland is Cycle Central. It challenges even Amsterdam (where bikes make up 40% of traffic!) for World's Most Bike-Friendly City title, and cycle-centredness is a big reason Portland usually claims World's Greenest City too.

Portland's bicycle culture is an important element of its greenie indentity, and is a deeply serious component of city planning. Cyclists here are trendy, tough, friendly and stroppy: they're fiercely proud of the ground they've won from motorists, and they're just getting started.

Portland doesn't host anything as big as the Argus, but then it has 'tweed' rides, midnight mail-drop rides, adult tricycle rides, and the biggest World Naked Bike Ride (about 13 000 participants last time). The streets are home to all permutations of the form: bike trailers, bakfietse, double-decker bikes and tandems are a common sight.

If you love bikes, all this is a total hoot. But the emphasis isn't church-on-Sunday-only cycling: the faith is kept every ordinary day of the week. It's about putting those bikes to work on the streets to reduce the number of motor vehicles, emissions, accidents and suffering.

So why can't we do it in a place like Cape Town? We know why bikes are a good idea – cheaper, greener, healthier – so what's stopping us? Portland is a middle-class, American city where people can afford to play at being eco-heroes, but it's not another planet. Arguing that a good idea that works in the first world couldn't possibly translate well to urban South Africa lets us off doing better much too easily.

SA arguments go like this: it's too dangerous, I don't have time, the weather, you stink when you get to work. Bikes shouldn't be on the roads. I dont like cycling. The distances are too great. It looks stupid. Bikes are stupid. I'm too lazy.

Let's tackle a few of these, starting with the toughest: It's too damn dangerous.

Because of cars, road use – all road use – is dangerous. Being on the road is the greatest risk most of us take, whatever our vehicle choice. And yes, as a Vulnerable Road User – that's a cyclist, pedestrian, motorcyclist or skateboarder – your chances of dying in a collision with a car are greater than they are for the driver.

There's another kind of danger South African cyclists face that, relatively speaking, is not even a blip on a Portlander's radar: we can get attacked.

With both kinds of danger – accident and assault – we can decide to give up, retreat indoors, and concede the roads to the motorised and our public spaces to criminals. But tempting as that option may sometimes be, I don't beleive many of us are ready to give up and hand over the keys of our city to cars and crooks just yet.

Here's what we can do instead:

  • Keep cycling, whenever and wherever possible. The more bikes on the roads, the safer it will be for bikes on the roads. Research has shown that increasing the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians actually reduces the chance that you will be hit by a car while cycling or walking; tripling the rate of cycling cuts the crash rate in half. The reason for this, say the study authors, seems to be that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling, and become more aware and cautious. In Portland, bicycle use has quadrupled over the last 20 years without any increase in crashes.

  • Don't cycle like a twit. A bicycle may be a traffic-calming mechanism, according to the above research, but you can undo some of that good work if you rile motorists up unnecessarily. Obey the rules of the road. Some motorists will hate you anyway, but there's not much you can do about that.

  • Wear a helmet, bright colours and reflectors. A helmet indicates to motorists that you're serious about safety and following the letter of the law. Oh, and it could save you from quadruplegia and death. Three-quarters of fatal bicycle crashes in New York involved a head injury and 97% of bicyclists who died weren't wearing a helmet. Helmets are 85% effective in preventing head injury.

  • Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, March 2011

I'll be adding to the above list of ways to get more commuter cyclists safely on our roads. If you have ideas relating to this you'd like to share, please post them in the comment box below.

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