Harry Fisher: South Africa needs to
learn to accept bikes
Story: Harry Fisher
This year I’ve spent time in the UK, Italy and France. No, I’m not boasting; after all, in this day and age international travel is nothing particularly special. But a few things occurred to me while in those countries.
The first thing I noticed in France and Italy is that there are so many bikes being used on a daily basis by absolutely everyone; young and old, male and female, open road and around town. Bikes are simply everywhere and one thing that occurred to me is the issue of space. Many European towns and cities are ancient, with all the narrow streets and alleyways that entails, meaning that a bike is the only practical urban transport.
Having said that, the way that the presence of bikes is accepted by the populace is at such odds to here in South Africa, where bikes are seen as a nuisance and not a transport solution. In Italy, there are no draconian penalties for parking a bike anywhere; they are on pavements, in piazzas, in front of historic monuments, churches, wherever they can find a space and that is completely acceptable behaviour.
In France and Italy they have a very practical approach to transport, especially in urban areas; small is beautiful. No hulking great SUVs or 4×4’s and a distinct lack of stupid luxury executive barges taking up far too much space. It can be no coincidence that both nations have made some of the most iconic small cars the world has ever seen; it is because space has always been at a premium and rather than adapting the space to the vehicle, they have adapted the vehicle to the space. Not only that but small is cheaper, meaning accessible to more people.
This is something we haven’t quite got our heads around in SA; cheap transport for the masses. Actually, that’s possibly not true; there has been cheap transport but it has never been taken up in any significant proportion for several reasons.
Firstly, distances are a problem; we live in a country where cities have had no restriction to vast expansion through geographical limitations; Johannesburg, for example, has been able to expand outwards, unchecked by anything such as a neighbouring town or city, partly because none were there in the first place. Streets were built wide because they could be and because that is what the wealthy desired and so we have a city with unrivalled space in which the car can move freely.
This is very much opposite to what happened to cities in Europe; London expanded to swallow up villages in the immediate vicinity but this was at a time long before the invention of the motor car so provision for the space they take up was not an issue. Not only that, but things were kept tightly packed because living space for an expanding population was at a premium.
Secondly, in South Africa, the car is king; it is a status symbol for many in a way that a motorcycle will never be, despite its practicalities. There is too much stigma attached to owning and riding a motorcycle.
The U.K. is a different proposition for motorcyclists. First, the weather is really shit which never helps. Secondly, public transport is incredibly efficient, both inter-city and inner city. But you do still see plenty of bikes on the road.
However, changing times have affected the number of bikes, especially in the bigger cities. When I was living in London, in the late ‘nineties, there were thousands of bikes on the roads of the city as courier riders plied their trade. I should know; I was one of them! But even then, in the late ‘nineties, the industry was on the wane due to the rise of the internet; courier companies were being driven out of business by technology and this had a huge impact on the number of bikes you’d see on the road. Now, I don’t think there are more than a handful of courier riders.
But still, every bike parking bay will be chock full of bikes every day as people use them for practical inner-city transport.
So, here in SA, the motorcycle will always be seen, among the uninitiated, as a nuisance, dangerous, irresponsible and so on. Those of us in the know will understand otherwise. As for the ‘dangerous’ tag, well, yes, we are more exposed to the dangers of the roads but often, many of those dangers we bring upon ourselves by irresponsible riding. We need to modify our behaviour in order to gain acceptance and, if we can get more bikes on the road, then motorists will have more opportunity to become used to motorcycles in and around them and, maybe, the motorcycle will become a more acceptable method of transport and traffic congestion will become a thing of the past!
Feature pic: Meghan McCabe