Gender and commuter cycling in Johannesburg
Popular wisdom has it that it is not that safe “out there” on the streets of Johannesburg for women. But a recent upswell in the numbers of women trying commuter cycling in Jozi, and supporting each other in getting started, is starting to change that perception. In fact, more and more women from all backgrounds are starting to see the benefits in ditching the car or taxi ride, and getting on their bikes instead.
Meghan Judge started commuter cycling in March 2014, when she tried out her boyfriend’s vintage Bianchi and realised she just couldn’t give it back. “I feel like I could go anywhere on that thing!” she says. Meghan’s typical commute is from downtown Johannesburg, where she lives, to her office in Fordsburg. “Every day I leave Joubert Street in the morning and cycle down past all the fruit and veggie sellers on Kerk Street (picking up my lunch for the day for under R10). I then join President St, link to Jeppe St and cycle to Fordsburg where I work. When I go home I pretty much just take President Street all the way, passing the Johannesburg Library to check out all the talented kids skating in the sunset.” Jess Jorgensen cycles around the CBD daily, and from Newtown to Braamfontein on her daily commute.
Mapaseka Vryman has been cycling to and from work a few times a week from Pretoria East to Pretoria Central since 2012. Her bike – incidentally, built by a woman! – is “a real beauty” which she bought through an online bicycle sales network.
Kim Green can’t resist enjoying her common commute from Jeppestown to Braamfontein past Park Station, on her pink low-pro time trial bike with a mix of white and gold components on it which her lovely husband built it up for her as a surprise birthday present one year. Nicky Falkof rides from home in Melville to work in Braamfontein nearly every day. “I use two main routes, either the Melville back streets through Richmond and up the service road alongside Empire, or up to Auckland Park and then cut through UJ. The second one is less hilly but does mean navigating the occasionally psychotic traffic on Annet Rd and Enoch Sontonga.”
Mapaseka acknowledges that she doesn’t always feel safe on a bicycle, so she stays vigilant. She has experiemented with how she dressed when commuting, with interesting effect: “I used to ensure no-one could tell I’m a woman. I wore Lycra and hid my long natural braids. Lerato, a friend in JHB, one cycled to work in high heels and lipstick. Her feedback was positive. She reported that cars gave her more cycling space. I have tried it in Pretoria and she was right. Cars give me more space when I’m in a suit on roads that are narrower than when I am wearing sporty cycling gear.” Kim doesn’t feel safe cycling on her own at night, but often does so during the day: “On my common routes, I like being able to concentrate on traffic and other road users.”
Jess reckons its absolutely safe during the day, but prefers to cycle in groups at night. Nicky also takes an approach of sensible caution: “I feel pretty safe when I cycle alone, but then I do try to be careful about where and when I go places. I’ve not had any bad experiences yet other than the requisite cat calls. I think maybe I feel relatively safe because I know I can move faster than anyone walking, and because I have much better visibility than I would in a car – I can see who’s around.”
On safety, Meghan has a great philosophy: “one of the main reasons why I am cycling around in the first place is to really try to unpack my own internal perceptions of fear based living in Johannesburg. I feel that the more I explore, the more I understand what should be feared and what should not. And so far, without a doubt, I can say that there is more to not be fearful of than there is to fear. This knowledge is quite liberating, but it is one that has to be explored and understood individually. Everyone has their own levels of self they are working through and I think it is important to always feel safe.”
What could get more women on bikes? Jess says the best way to get into it is to “just get your bum on a bike for one day’s social riding and experience the liberating freedom for yourself”. Kim reckons that the more bicycle lanes are built in Jo’burg, the more women will get on to their bicycles to use them. As well as more bicycle lanes and road safety campaigns, it’s a cultural thing. Nicky sums it up well:
“I think more women would try commuter cycling if it became demystified. There’s a really strange bike culture in Joburg that seems to assume cycling is for men, so women who do it are usually sports people and are quite competitive. But I get on my bike in jeans or a skirt instead of lycra. You don’t have to be wealthy, sporty and competitive to cycle. I think that bikes need to become more normalised and more an accepted part of the urban landscape, at which point women will start going well hang on, that looks nice, why can’t I do it?”
TIPS FOR WOMEN CYCLISTS, FROM WOMEN WHO CYCLE:
– Get to know your route. If you’re not sure about the best most cycle-friendly way to get from home to work and back, ask a more experienced commuter cyclist to go with you the first couple of times. Or contact JUCA and we will help you work out a good route.
– Get to know the people on your route! Take the time to stop at the local vegetable vendor or corner shop, so that they get to know you too – “the friendly lady on the bike”! Then you know who you can go to for help if you need it some day.
– Be friendly to those you meet. Saying hello and getting greeted back might take away a bit of that paranoia about strangers that Johannsburg has socialized into most women who live here.
– Get to know other women cyclists. Join The Monthly Cycles and meet other women who ride!
– If you’re nervous about cycling alone at night, time your commute to avoid after dark, or make a plan to cycle together with a friend.
– If a pedestrian catcalls you – and let’s face it, this is probable – just ignore it and keep on cycling. Remember, you are faster than they are, you’re on a bike!