Every time I travel down roads seldom pedaled I discover a whole new experience of our city. The route to Mitchells Plain is just 21km, but it is absolutely facinating, transversing a variety of landscapes – from the leafy suburbs of Claremont to the verdant farmlands of Philippi. In this article Brett Petzer shares his first experience of cycling this route – a reccie ride in preparation for the Bike Bus to Open Streets.
RECCIE RIDE TO MITCHELLS PLAIN
On Sunday 13 March, a group of riders led by Bicycle Cape Town and Open Streets went in search of the best cycle route from the Southern Suburbs to Mitchell’s Plain. As we gathered at the park-and-ride site at Palmyra Junction, heads bent over the map, I saw that the planned route took in the gentle landscapes of Philippi, by way of back roads. For the return journey, we decided to try out a quicker route, mainly along the shoulders of arterial roads, which would require some deft manoeuvring to bypass intersections.
OUT OF THE ‘BURBS
Setting off in some character-building winds, we were relieved to find that suburban Claremont’s leafy streets provided some respite from the wind. As we rode down the length of Rosmead Avenue, I was struck by how cyclable it is, and how it gives access to a large stretch of Claremont through its wide shoulder and, for those times when you’re just not going to take a chance on a fast-moving approaching lorry, hoppable sidewalks.
As we turned onto Ottery Road, the landscape opened up into the fertile farmlands of Philippi, where last week I heard from Nazeer Sonday, an activist, community leader and farmer, that the area is now producing around 60% of all Cape Town’s vegetables, even as the rest of the country suffers through the worst drought in a generation. Of course, through a car window, all of this would have been nothing but tinted scenery; on our bikes, the scents of crops, fynbos and manure changed every few minutes, and it was easy to greet and be greeted by the passersby.
On a windy Sunday, Philippi was very busy, with farm stall vendors waiting out the afternoon and young equestrians taking horses through their paces. Despite the busy roads and lack of bike lanes, bicycles were being used extensively as a cheap way of moving people and freight around the far-flung settlement.
THE HUMAN SCALE
When I drove a car as my only form of transport, I remember that every person or animal or object on the road dissolved into various categories of obstacle, and nothing more. My only responsibility was to my own ride, and my only objective was to collapse the time between departure and arrival to the minimum. What happened on the way was only a movie playing through the windows.
A bike ride to Mitchell’s Plain shows how much detail and interest a somewhat slower form of transport can take in, as a side product of moving through human landscapes. This feeling grew stronger as we left Philippi behind and, rather abruptly, entered Mitchell’s Plain where the vast Westgate Mall looks out onto farmland. Everywhere, human activity – people running small shops and cafés from open garages, or talking to one another on kerbstones or benches, or waiting for taxis – was crammed into residual space left over when the needs of cars had been met.
This experience holds true in a bird’s eye view, which is how suburbs like Mitchell’s Plain were designed – neighbourhood units cut into large squares by fast, wide roads for cars, that take a lot of local knowledge to navigate on foot. Despite this, drivers were more courteous, with several waving to us as we went, and there were many pedestrians and a lot of pedestrian life.
We reached our destination along one end of a fairly new bicycle and pedestrian lane, where on the 3rd of April 2016 the Open Streets event takes place. This will be an opportunity for Mitchell’s Plain residents to ask whether all this pedestrian life – games of street cricket, gossiping with neighbours and friends, selling fruit and vegetables from a stall, or unloading household goods from a bakkie for sale – doesn’t deserve more than the very margins of our streets.
Taking the faster route home, mainly by faster and more direct R and N roads, the arrogance of car space was evident again – if you cannot afford or do not want to buy and maintain and fuel a car, it is difficult to move across our city. Open Streets, which has gathered momentum gently but inevitably, will ask these questions that have occurred to many of us, but with a critical mass that must provoke some new thinking and dialogue.
Thinking back to a quiet Mitchell’s Plain street where it was safe to play, and where cars were relegated to a subservient position in the streetscape, and to how lively and full of people that street was, shows that we are ready as a city – and have been ready for a long time.
GETTING THERE TIPS:
- Our favorite route was the 21km route which is also best used for the return trip.
- The start point at Palmyra Junction, offers easy access to the Metrorail Southern Line as well as car parking facilities, so you can park your car and cycle from there.
Photographs © David Malan and Brett Petzer