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Monday Dec 10, 2012

Cape Town should plan for bicycles

Cape Town is running on empty. Growth in parts of Cape Town is limited by lack of infrastructure, and we are still unable to provide for much of the population that already lives here.

Yet the city continues to be built to support unsustainable behaviour: the ways we travel, consume water and energy, and dispose of waste are contributing to the crisis.

But the municipality can't just plan for new ways of living without knowing what people want to do with their time and money. What are feasible alternatives that meet real needs? To understand that, we need to stop looking at the big patterns - what most people do, most of the time - and look harder at the "noise" in the data.

We'll never create change by observing and designing for what people do en masse. That just reinforces the status quo. It's the activities outside the mainstream that demonstrate what could become new patterns. Things don't start big, they grow like little eddies in the wind that gradually pick up strength and speed.

Sometimes they fade away, other times they become dominant patterns. And those that fade don't always disappear because there's anything wrong with them, or because there is no inherent value to give them staying power, but because everything is stacked against them. The trick is figuring out which behaviours are worth encouraging.

Cycling is one of those things with obvious potential. Just look at how it has endured cities across the world. Regardless of climate or continent, there are places where it thrives, and other places where it would take off as a serious form of transport, if only it were safer. And there are clear signs cycling is picking up in popularity here as transport, not just sport. Should Cape Town invest more in cycling infrastructure? We all know it's a healthier, cheaper and nonpolluting form of transport, but those arguments haven't produced municipal budgets that take cycling seriously.

There are, however, other far-reaching benefits for the city.

  • The motor vehicle industry creates jobs, but bicycles provide a qualitatively different set of employment opportunities. They can create business for smallscale entrepreneurs who provide sales and maintenance services throughout the city, with much lower barriers to entry than motor mechanics - less training and less investment is needed to repair bikes. And because they are a slow-moving form of transport, bike routes also support the kinds of small and micro-businesses that can benefit from people hopping on and off their bikes.

  • While the car is a flexible form of transport for long distances, and the bus and train are fuel-efficient (when full) for long distances, the bike beats all of them for short distances. Because of its flexibility and affordability, cycling extends the distances people can travel within their neighbourhoods, but discourages large-scale centres that serve areas so large that they can only be reached by car or bus.

  • All of this encourages the emergence of a more compact city, with all the benefits that accrue from reducing the amount of infrastructure the municipality must build and maintain.

  • The city itself becomes cheaper for the municipality to run, cheaper for residents to get around, and businesses benefit from being more accessible for those without cars.

    But supporting cycling to the extent that it can achieve its full potential depends on taking the bold step of planning for a significant shift in numbers - road planning needs to change so that bikes become a mode of choice. It also depends on making a concerted effort at encouraging the emergence of the local businesses that cycling can support.

    A bike is not the ultimate form of transport, any more than a car or bus is. It is just one of a number of options. But it has the potential to redefine the city in ways that very few other things can do. And more people out on bikes will also change the opportunities we have for personal interaction, changing the character of the city and making it a more welcoming place to be.

    @carbonsmart. Oh, one more thing: people just wanna have fun, right, so why don't we use that as the starting point for design that influences behaviour? Check this:

    Man About Town
    Rory Williams
    Cape Times


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