“Cape Town needs cars like fish need bicycles”

To kick off our new series of Commuter Stories, we asked South African journalist and passionate commuter cyclist Telford Vice to share his experience of cycling in Cape Town.

Why do I ride a bicycle? Silly question. Here’s a better one: why doesn’t everyone ride a bicycle?

I googled “bicycle” and 252 000 000 hits popped up. Then I googled “people”: 5 080 000 000!

Which, if you suspend your disbelief in the thoroughly unscientific nature of that experiment, could mean there are 20 times as many people as there are bikes on the planet. Of course, it could also mean there is one bike for every 20 people out there.

Bully for all of them. The more people on bikes, the happier humans will be. Apologies – I’m telling you what you know already.

In knew this even when we lived in Johannesburg, and there’s nothing that gets a juiced up Joburger’s goat quite like someone having the audacity to put two non-motorised wheels on the road and dare to share that strip of public space.

I dared. They didn’t want to share. Once, an obese 4×4 followed me down Corlett Drive, from one end of Wanderers cricket stadium to the other, hand-on-hooter all the way. The kindest thing anyone said to me through the window as I cycled silently by was a sneered, “What? We’re in Europe now?”

Riding a bike in Joburg is not for the faint of heart or spirit, unless you’re a lycra loving weekend warrior winging around quiet morning streets from one faux Tuscan townhouse complex to another, or a returnee from yonder mine dump covered in mud and smiles.

I am neither of the above. My bike is my chosen mode of transport. It’s a red single-speed of uncertain provenance fitted with a leather saddle, a bamboo carrier, and a bell. It is my most loved possession. But riding it on the road in Joburg was an act of civil disobedience.

Telford-ViceThen came the happy day in June 2013 when we moved to Sea Point. Suddenly, riding a bike on the road was simply what one did if one was so inclined. Many were and, happily, are.

Now I forget where I’ve parked my car. Then I remember it’s the one covered in seagull poo because it’s been in the same spot for weeks. Note to self: better start the poor thing one of these days to make sure the battery hasn’t died.

Much of Cape Town needs cars like fish need bicycles. This is particularly true of Sea Point, which is mostly flat, within easy reach of the city – by bike lane, nogal – and eminently more navigable on two wheels compared to four. I need to muffle my laughter every time I glide past the hundreds of metres of traffic on Main Road trying to ooze through the Glengariff Road intersection.

Which is not to confuse Cape Town with Copenhagen. The other day on Beach Road, a driver of another obese 4×4 asked me if I “wanted to get killed”, his idea of the punishment I deserved for the crime of changing lanes. Of course I had signalled. Of course I told him to look where the hell he was going.

In countries like South Africa the engined masses will think they own the road. Despite that there is a discernible Cape Town sensibility for cyclists.

A biking life is more than possible here. It’s more than probable. It’s the obvious choice. Still, the question remains – why doesn’t everyone ride a bicycle.

The answer? They will.

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