Ignore the propaganda – getting to work on your own steam still isn't cool

Hello, fellow normal person! What a lovely day! Gosh, what a strange way of waving you have. Tally-ho. Must get on. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

It was the revolution that never happened.

David Cameron finished hugging a hoodie and jumped on his bike, nimbly rocking up to Westminster pink-faced and environmentally-friendly, and Boris Johnson guffed past the masses on his sturdy two-wheeled steed.

New Labour built London’s first pedestrian-only bridge, and spawned not only a generation of smug Banksiders walking to their banks, but an iconic Harry Potter moment.

You've seen the film... now walk the bridge! Image: Wikimedia Commons

And yet getting to work on your own steam still isn’t cool. The walk-to-work, cycle-scheme revolution never quite came to pass. The overwhelming majority of people in British cities still use either public transport or private vehicles to trudge the lonesome road from bed to desk and back again.

Exeter is an outlier when it comes to walking to work – 22 per cent reported doing so at the time of the 2011 census.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities. 

But beyond that, the proportions trickle down through York, Brighton, Oxford, and Edinburgh to the doldrums, with most cities claiming about one in ten people as walk-to-workers, and around half of all British cities showing fewer than ten per cent walking to work.

And it’s not even like there’s any great improvement.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities. 

Again, Exeter saw the greatest improvement by percentage point change from 2001 to 2011– but even that, at 3.4 per cent, isn’t gargantuan. Almost half of all cities in the UK actually saw a decline over the course of the decade, and only 11 cities managed to increase the proportion of those walking to work by more than one percentage point.

The picture isn’t much better for cyclists.

Impressions of cycling are enormously dominated and distorted by two heavyweight political cities – Oxford and Cambridge. The fact that these two cities produce so many politicians, cabinet ministers, and prime ministers through their two respective universities creates an impression amongst the ‘ruling classes’ that not only is cycling incredibly important to the nation’s continued ability to get around, but that there are millions of people across the country just dying to get on their bike and live the cycle-dream.

But the stats don't back it up.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities. 

Cambridge tears miles ahead of the pack, with a phenomenal 29 per cent cycling to work in 2011, while Oxford trails behind with a meagre 17 per cent. York follows, with 11 per cent, but beyond that – it’s a barren state of affairs. In all but ten cities, fewer than one in 20 people cycles to work, while there are 33 cities in the Centre for Cities’ data where fewer than one in 40 joins Boris and Dave’s crusade of getting on ‘yer’ bike.

Most telling of all is the fact that the percentage of people cycling to work actually fell in a strong majority of cities between 2001 and 2011.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities. 

The falls varied from Bradford, where the percentage point change over the decade was -0.1, to Hull, where cycling collapsed by 3.59 percentage points.

And although London, with its heavy focus on cycle lanes, infrastructure, Boris bikes, and encouraging propaganda, managed an increase of 1.5 percentage points, that boost has neither seen the huge numbers one might have hoped for, nor filtered through to the rest of the country in any meaningful way.

The Revolution Will Have Dodgy Brakes. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There is, of course, a chance that these figures have changed radically since the last census – after all, five years is a long time in commuting. The 2021 census may show that a fifth of us on average are cycling to work, while another fifth are walking; figures that would represent a sea change in the way we get to the office, and would change the look and feel of our cities from traffic-clogged streets and body-odour-laden trains to slightly-less-clogged streets and severely-faded-morning-cologne. They may do. But they probably won’t.

And that matters. Cycling and walking to work save the planet – energy saved from the electricity used to power diesel and the fuel burnt to drive cars is all part of the bigger picture of the changes we need to make to our lives to stave off the worst effects of climate change, a pressing issue in a winter that has seen the lowest ever levels of sea ice in the Arctic.


Commuting on your own steam is cheaper, too. Indeed, bar the initial investment in a bike or a good pair of shoes – and the odd bit of resoling or bike-mending – it’s entirely free. Economically, that makes good things happen. People have more money to spend on meals out, more things in the shops, more holidays, and so on – and more spending means more economic happy-times.

And it’s healthier. With the NHS in the middle of whatever mess this is, whether you call it a ‘humanitarian crisis’ as the Red Cross does or just a ‘right royal f***-up’ as everyone else does, we all need to be doing our bit to keep the doctor away. That little bit of compulsory exercise every day, even if it’s just walking the mile to the office, or cycling the 2 miles to the desk, makes a huge difference.

So why aren’t we all doing it? 

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.