Opinion: Bicycle commuting in Durban

Submitted by: Harald Witt, Wednesday, September 11, 2013

<p>Harald Witt touring by bicycle through the Grootberg Pass in Namibia (Image source: Harald Witt).</p>

Harald Witt touring by bicycle through the Grootberg Pass in Namibia (Image source: Harald Witt).

Based on 23 years of experience as a cycle commuter in Durban, Harald Witt writes about the individual and social benefits of cycling and provides some practical advice for aspiring commuter cyclists. 

"The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man (humanity). Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart." Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green

The words cycling and commuting, like sustainability and development, appear to contradict one another. Yet, ever so slightly, the wheel of mobility may be turning as rising fuel prices, endless congestion on our roads, a growing environmental awareness, pollution concerns, and the densification of urban areas forces us to seek out more sustainable solutions to urban transportation issues. Bicycle commuting should, in my opinion, be in the forefront of such solutions.

Why Bicycle Commuting?

I returned to Durban in 1990, having spent three years overseas working and touring by bicycle; a life-changing but also life-affirming experience. It therefore seemed logical that upon my return I would continue using a bicycle as my primary form of transportation. Twenty-three years later I still commute: to and from work, to the shops, to visit friends, to go to the beachfront and so forth, all on a bicycle. I do not own a car. It is, for me, the most satisfying and pure form of transportation available; second only to walking although obviously far more efficient and effective.  

There is something special, something essentially human, about using the energy and mechanics of my body to move from one place to another rather than relying on an internal combustion engine. It is also the most economical, effectual and socially inclusive form of individual transport available.

Cycling allows me to be fully engaged with the world around me, unlike the alienating role that cars play in society. I recognise virtually every person who walks or cycles to get to their place of work along my route; some I even know by name. I engage with a host of car guards, street vendors, joggers, informal traders, cardboard collectors and so forth. Did you know that there are individuals who actually run their businesses from a bicycle; a plumbing enterprise which operates in the Cato Manor area and a gardening service which operates in the Queensburgh area? 

During peak traffic time it also takes me less time - door to door - to cycle to and from work. This is in line with international research findings that cycling generally takes less time than driving for trips of five kilometres or less and about the same time for five to eight kilometre trips. My daily commute is somewhat longer but the principle still applies. Traffic jams, congestion and a lack of parking are generally not terms associated with the cycling experience.

As a commuting cyclist I also notice the small and subtle societal and environmental changes which are nothing but a blur to motorists. I sadly am also in a position where I notice the everyday carnage on our roads, the collateral damage of cars. I refer here not to the well-publicised road deaths of our fellow humans but to the hundreds of living creatures whose bodies are smashed to a pulp by cars and trucks. As someone who teaches environmentalism and advocates a fossil-fuel-free society cycling is also the one choice I can make in a world where genuinely environmentally friendly choices are rather scarce. In addition, there are of course the health and fitness benefits; no gym fees for me or endless hours on a stationary bicycle.

It is naturally somewhat difficult for me to quantify the economic and other benefits of cycling commuting but if you consider factors such as the cost of owning and running a car, the number of hours lost in traffic jams, parking costs, and the reduction in health costs (thanks to the effects of regular exercise, lack of stress and avoidance of road rage) then the numbers would certainly be in favour of cycling commuting.

At a national level there would also be an increased saving of foreign exchange due to the decline in oil imports, less carnage on the roads (if everyone cycled), less pressure on road networks and reduced  need for constant road repairs. There would also be a saving of a host of non-renewable resources, a decrease in urban pollution and smog and of course a decline in the production of greenhouse gases. As a country still coming to terms with the concept of democracy cycling commuting also represents a democratisation of mobility while similarly encouraging greater autonomy and accessibility for all.

Challenges to the Commuting Cyclist

It would be naïve and irresponsible for me to maintain that bicycle commuting in Durban is not without its specific set of challenges. Durban is certainly not Amsterdam where cycling is deeply embedded in the local psyche and street culture. In Durban, as with the remainder of our country where there is almost no cycling infrastructure, a commuting cyclist like myself is forced to share the road with, what I often refer to as, the largest constituency of law-breakers in the country; namely car drivers. The blatant disregard for even the most basic road regulations by those who drive is widely acknowledged yet rules and regulations continue to be poorly enforced thus creating a relatively hostile environment for cyclists.

The lack of safe parking or storage spaces for bicycles once you have reached your place of work or destination is another dilemma. This is also true in terms of basic amenities such as a shower at your place of work. These are, however, what I would call “political issues” and are therefore not insurmountable but simply require a level of leadership within the relevant structures. Many would argue that local weather conditions (hot and humid with intense thunderstorms) and Durban’s rather hilly terrain also play a role in discouraging the use of bicycles. This may be the case but, come on, as ‘Durbanites’ we don’t have to deal with snow and sleet or temperatures of 40 degrees plus while for every hill there is the benefit of a downhill! Furthermore, even bicycles at the lower end of the market have substantial gearing allowing for relatively easy climbing.

Practical tips for bicycle commuting

There are a number of factors which you would need to consider before joining the world of commuting cyclists. Clearly you would need a bicycle, the basic equipment (including a helmet which is compulsory), a sound knowledge of existing road rules and road etiquette, some cycling experience and a large dollop of common sense.

Durban has a number of reputable bicycle dealers who should be able to provide you with the necessary expert advice on the most appropriate bicycle for your needs and the relevant equipment. I suggest that you visit the following websites:  pedal power, arrive alive and the bicycle empowerment network for additional safety and other cycling tips.

The three key issues I would emphasise are as follows:

  1. Firstly, as cyclists we have a right to be on the road but that right comes with responsibilities and a respect for the rules of the road, obey them;
  2. Secondly, cycle pro-actively, deliberately, defensively, predictably and expect the worst from other road users; and
  3. Finally ensure you are visible (night and day), use hand signals or communicate as best you can with fellow road users.

A concluding comment

In conclusion I end with quote from an article by George Monbiot published in the Guardian newspaper in December 2005:

"I believe that while there are many reasons for the growth of individualism … the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation which recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions. We drive on the left … but we are being driven to the right."

Harald Witt