The bicycle: a collective dream

“The true impact of activism may not be felt for a generation. This alone is reason to fight, rather than surrender to despair.” -Rebecca Solnit

I have been trying to cycle mindfully these days. Not just because it is the only time I seem to be fully present, but also because I am desperately trying to reconnect with the essence of what I truly love about bicycles and streets: their potential for social change.

In a recent workshop I attended, this feeling of reconnecting with one’s dream was framed as our personal “driving force” and, though to arrive “at it” one must undergo a profound process of self-discovery, I am using it loosely to reflect on my desire to see streets that cater to our basic human need for movement and connection. (The irony of a non-automobile “drive” doesn’t escape me!)

Five years ago, I tapped into that global collective bicycle dream. At the beginning of that journey, the impossible was imaginable. I would cycle up and down Main Road in Cape Town and could “see” (through those utopian lenses I seemed to wear everywhere in those days) hundreds of people on bicycles traveling to and from the train stations, to the shops, to work or wherever people in cities travel to.

As time has gone by, that picture has started to come out of focus and its colours have started to fade; the image of reality has confidently set in. The thing is, in the last five years, the number of commuting cyclists I encounter has only marginally increased.

And so, in trying to bring the “dream photo” back into focus, I am mentally reconstructing how it all started for me. In 2012, I bought a heavy old Dutch bicycle. It went well with the narrative I had bought into: Amsterdam was the heaven of bicycles and couldn’t we just implant the same chip in Cape Town and get everyone on two wheels?

Back then, I would feel a rush of excitement when I was cycling in the midst of traffic of Main Road. Facing the madness was one way of strengthening the dream; or so I thought until I found myself lying on the road with a few fractured bones. The several months of recovery diminished some of the excitement. I started to avoid cycling in traffic as much as possible but it didn’t kill the joy; I still cycled and got involved with a few cycling initiatives, including one I helped to co-found: Open Streets.

I had indeed joined the cycling preaching collective to remind the incredulous why bicycles are good for us as individuals, as a society and as creatures of the planet Earth. Nevertheless, over time I started to feel in my bones that we were “riding” an uphill battle. The scepticism among people and the sheer fear of getting hurt on the streets was simply insurmountable. In addition, I had read too many reports, too many critiques about the existing infrastructure being inappropriate, and a strong sense crept in that cycling simply was not part of the culture in South African cities. As a non-South African, who was I to dispute that? The photo was not only fading, it was in fact dissolving in front of my eyes.

The cynicism has seemingly only become more entrenched. But last week while having dinner with a friend, she said she too liked to imagine hundreds of cyclists on the streets of Cape Town every day! And just like that, the dream returned. She reminded me not only that those hundreds are already on the streets in areas of Cape Town — perhaps not in one location all together and in places where I don’t spend a lot of time — but touched on the reality that makes this dream hard but also necessary. Cape Town is a city with very real challenges: its geography, its social and economic divisions and the many tears in its social fabric that engender separation and fear of the other and of change.

In many ways, it will never resemble Amsterdam; and that is a good thing. Cape Town must find its own cycling rhythm and that can only happen if we mobilise in as many creative ways as we can. As Solnit highlights in this great article, there is no time to despair. Climate change hasn’t gone away and, if anything, congestion is increasing everywhere we look. The myriad of benefits of cycling, from health to having fun, are also still there and for those of us who believe that small interactions can change a society, being on a bicycle allows us to connect with each other.

There is no silver bullet — that we know. Every effort counts and in our small city, there are several initiatives in place by organisations such as the Pedal Power Association, BEN Bikes, Velokhaya, Qubeka and my own, Open Streets. For obvious reasons, I believe they have real potential and can take us a step closer to the dream of more bicycles on the streets of Cape Town; but my biggest realisation in recent days is that the most important thing we need to do is believe change is possible and to connect with that “driving force” again. I am certain, not everyone’s will entail bicycles but I would like to believe that at the end we are all seeking to improve the human experience, for ourselves and those around us.

The bicycle turns 200 this year; my love affair with it in Cape Town only five. And so I am reminded the journey requires perspective and patience. We are only getting started in this part of the world.

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.