Plan cities around bikes to make cycling a real option for more women

A woman, and her dog, cycling in Hong Kong. Image: Getty.

Growing up in North Germany, cycling was my main means of transport, as would be usual for residents. When I moved to Newcastle, northern England in 1996, I stopped. The clear cycle paths I was used to in Germany simply didn’t exist and I didn’t feel safe. But slowly I began cycling more a few years later. Short local trips at first, then to work, and for leisure in the countryside. I enjoyed the thrill of it.

But cycling became more and more difficult over the years and I soon reached a point where it didn’t seem worth it anymore. Competing with fast and heavy motor traffic whilst being on a flimsy two-wheel metal frame was increasingly something that worried me. By 2009, it had started to feel downright treacherous and extremely uncomfortable. It was at this point that I started campaigning.

It’s hard to deny that cycling is good. Increasing active travel can improve the common good and individual well-being. Cycling reduces emissions, improves air quality, reduces noise levels, improves social and economic equity, independence, dignity and health to its users, is spatially efficient, affordable, and provides inexpensive access to work, education and other venues of public life.

But despite these known and well-documented benefits, rates of cycling have remained low in anglophone Western countries. Nationally, getting around by bike is particularly rare in the UK, with only 2 per cent of all trips cycled. In comparison, in the nearby Netherlands, 27 per cent journeys are made by bike; in Denmark it’s 18 per cent; and in Germany 11 per cent.

Men in lycra

In the UK, cycling is also primarily a male rather than female travel mode. Less than a third of all UK cyclists are women, whereas women’s cycling participation is 56 per cent, 55 per cent and 50 per cent in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany respectively. These three countries seem to work for women and cycling. So what keeps people from choosing the bike?

First up there’s the notion that cyclists in low-cycling countries, like the UK, have an image problem. Or as urban planning expert Clara Greed put it: “Some young men on bicycles (dressed in lycra outfits, face covered with air-filter masks) are extremely arrogant and aggressive, just like some men in cars, and seldom are they burdened with shopping or children.” Put simply, our transport system is designed for speed. Aggression abounds. Dog eat dog. Might is right. Close passes are a normality. Inconsiderately parked vehicles block the roads. All this hinders walking and cycling.

Of course, the right infrastructure could change this. But despite the availability of the technical expertise in what is needed to get more people on bikes, cycling levels in the UK have remained low. Although cycling levels have increased almost every year since 2008, the rise is pretty slow over the country as a whole, with some exception for some cities, such as London. And more cycling does not mean a diverse range of people are cycling.

Experts agree that in particular, protected cycle space is needed. Most people want to cycle away from motor traffic; in their own space; at their own leisure. More cycle lanes that physically separate cycling from driving spaces would enable a broader spectrum of the population to cycle.

This would entail taking into account the full variety of journeys that are made around a city. Road design favours those commuting by car, and commuting, historically, is a breadwinner’s activity – usually a man’s. A substantial building programme is needed to rearrange our cities to benefit all types of journeys – such as school runs, grocery shopping or visiting friends – encouraging people to cycle or walk. This would involve constructing cycleways, getting cars out of living and shopping quarters and prioritising public transport on roads and rails.


A wall of officials

I want cycling to be stress-free. As a woman who would like to enjoy cycling more, I have long been frustrated with this very slow rate of change. This is why in 2010, I co-founded the Newcastle Cycling Campaign. And why in 2015, I began to research cycling activism, hoping to inspire policy implementation. Over the last decade, I have carried out countless conversations with a diversity of people, campaigners and decision makers alike.

Speaking with women activists was a particularly humbling experience. These women had dedicated a substantial part of their spare time to lobby for cycleways. By doing so, they hoped to effect better cycling conditions, better cities and more democratic spaces. But they found the experience incredibly trying. No one wanted to listen. One woman described the feeling of campaigning as standing in front of a vast “wall of officials”.

The interviews I carried out for my PhD reveal how much cities are primarily designing for cars. Technical officers, like transport planners and traffic engineers, reign supreme in our cities. They have remained unquestioned for much too long a time by local politicians. Activists have even less of a chance to contribute. I found that they met with a culture that held them at bay. New ideas – such as building cycleways – could not penetrate into council’s technical practice of designing for the car. This, to me, seems undemocratic. Beyond the opinion periodically expressed at the ballot box, just how could an interest group gain access to the decision making process?

In addition to this dysfunctional official system, the women I interviewed also came into conflict with older styles of cycle campaigning: the so-called “vehicular cyclists”. These cyclists denounce the need for cycleways, preferring to cycle on the road in vehicular traffic. They believe that cycling in 30mph motor traffic is desirable and that you are only a real cyclist if you mix with motor traffic. Such cyclists abhor cycling infrastructure.

Challenging the car

Of course, individuals can do what they want. But such a perspective fails to challenge the status quo of prioritising the car. Planning cities around the car harms local democracy and well-being. It leaves little room to account for people’s realities and fails to focus on the public good.

A small number of cities have made headway in recent years. Seville, New York and London are such examples. As a result of strong local leaders, road space has been set aside and converted into cycleways.

But the need for strong leaders to enact such change again raises questions of the democratic process. Everyone knows that cycling is good for you. Cycling is contentious because campaigners demand physical changes to the roads – often at the expense of cars. And roads are political.

The Conversation

Katja Leyendecker, PhD Candidate in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

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.