Cycling in Johannesburg is possible.
Johannesburg has many quiet residential roads that are wide and are not very busy. Plan your route so that you stay off busy arterial roads wherever possible (see JUCAs cycle map). Be aware and anticipate what vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians might do that will require you to take action. Being aware will keep you safe. If possible make eye contact with drivers, this will help you ascertain whether the driver has noticed you.
Don’t (and this is important) pass large moving vehicles, such as buses and trucks up the inside. These vehicles often have large blindspots and may not see you when they subsequently turn left or push up against the side walk.
Enjoy the experience, greeting, smiling and connecting with people on the street. Being part of the community you are commuting through. There are further details below on commuter cycling. Thanks to CYCLE WITS and a volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous for their contribution.
Distances, times, and fitness
If you have access to a bicycle and live reasonably close to your place of work, school or recreational area you can cycle there. A beginner cyclist will do around 15 km/hour (terrain permitting), so a 5 km commute comes in at around 20 minutes. Start slow and work your way up, cycling is for everyone.
A common refrain that we hear goes something like “I don’t have the time – riding will take too long to get to work.” This might be the case but not always. It depends on the distance and time of travel for instance. A commuter cyclist tells us for example with his respect to his ride:
Between Craighall Park and Sandton, my average driver commute at 7.30AM is about 20-25 minutes. On a bicycle, riding without major exertion, I do about 28 minutes. I can live with that difference.
For sure many people are concerned about road safety. It is not unusual to hear statements like “Cycling on roads with car traffic is too dangerous. How can you tolerate that kind of risk?” Statistically however, it seems that riding a bicycle is safer than driving a car. There is also a host of knowledge on bike-road safety which, if properly used, should improve your odds even more.
Another concern is safety about the threat of crime. People fear getting robbed. Of course this fear is not groundless. It is horrible. It is something that needs to be addressed through police actions but also broader societal changes. However, common sense approaches can make all the difference. As a commuter cyclist tells us:
I avoid areas that look suitable for an ambush attack. I avoid isolated areas. I stick to routes where I am likely to be able to shout for help. I ride a relatively inexpensive bike and don’t expose items of obvious value.
We also hear refrains such as “South Africa is too hot to ride. I don’t want to be sweaty at work.” Certainly it makes sense that some people may not want to arrive to their destinations looking and feeling in ways in which they would not. For those who are lucky, there maybe shower facilities available at destinations. Or perhaps there might be a nearby gym or sporting facility.We see noways that an increasing number of organisations are offering such services at work. Inquire at your workplace for more information. Alternatively a simple strategy is to ride slowly to your destination and avoid getting sweaty. You may choose a more rigorous bicycle ride home.
For short commutes all you need is a bicycle, but a few basics will make the ride much safer and more comfortable:
- Bicycle, get one that fits, and with enough gears to get you up the hills.
- Spare tube, puncture repair kit, and tyre irons (to remove tyre), a hand pump, spanner (if you don’t have quick release to remove the wheel)
- Bag or bike rack, for all your stuff.
- A good lock, chain and a good padlock or U-lock.
- Wear a helmet if you are concerned for your road safety. Of course a helmet is no guarantee or road safety. It may provide some support but it is not the ultimate safety solution.
- Lights – If commuting at night or in twilight – use flashing LED lights, cheap to buy and run.
Enhanced riding tips
When you need to get to work, you are no longer a weekend joy rider. You are an efficiency-driven, time-constrained commuter. It is imperative that you take time to plan your route as carefully as you can. My strong preference is to avoid ‘big roads’ (think Jan Smuts, William Nichol, Oxford Road). Use back roads through the suburbs. They are quieter, safer and even pleasant (birds chirping, trees and shade, etc). Think carefully about where you will cross ‘big roads’. Traffic lights are by far the best option.
Test your proposed route on a weekend in a stress-free situation. Experiment with different paths. Understand that maps tell only part of the story. Actually riding the route will reveal hidden paths that don’t show on maps. While there is a cycling map available for Johannesburg, your route will be unique and you will need to adapt and learn it.
Be a considerate road user
Car drivers in South Africa are not yet adequately socialised to bicycle commuters. This will improve with time if more people start cycling to work, but for now it means that you need to take EXTRA EXTRA CARE to make yourself visible to drivers and do everything in your power to NOT confirm drivers’ worst prejudices about cyclists. It is equally important to be considerate to pedestrians . A moving bicycle is an imposing obstacle to someone on foot.
Obey the rules of the road. If you ride on the road, you will learn to ‘feel’ the rhythm of the traffic. Work with this. Stop at red lights. Indicate turns with hand signals. Thank drivers. It makes a huge difference and you build the culture.
Ride confidently, on the road, where safe to do so. Use the sidewalk only on ‘big roads’ and where there are few or none pedestrians (so, not often). Having a mountain bike is a big help here, because it makes a wider range of terrain more navigable (loose surfaces, bumps, etc are only a minor challenge). Remember that the sidewalk is pedestrian territory and when you choose to ride there, understand you are on pedestrians’ rightful turf. Buy a bell and mount it on your handlebars to give pedestrians advance warning of your presence. Thank them for giving way. Ideally, you would never ride on the sidewalk. However, sometimes it is pretty much unavoidable.
Storage for your stuff
You will need to ferry all the stuff you otherwise throw in your car, and your clothes for the work day. The holy grail is a basket on the front handlebars or a rack over the rear wheel, but a backpack (preferably a “breathable” one) will do the job too. Basically, you want something small and light
I have invested in front and rear LED lights for my bike. They are very bright and have made a major difference to my visibility on the road. I set the rear light to flash whenever I ride (day or night). I set the front light to flash in daytime/dusk (if there are streetlights on), and sustained beam if I need the light in the dark. They recharge via USB. They are very easy to mount and use
I suggest you avoid the cleat/clipless situation that your cyclist friend or bikeshop mechanic recommended when you first got into cycling as a sport. Yes, these special types of pedals have a place in cycling and lead to greater pedaling efficiency. But they also force you to wear special shoes and reduce your agility in an emergency. My advice is that you replace them with old-fashioned, regular pedals.
Stop and smell the roses
You will be reminded, on your very first ride, of what the potential for a cycling culture in Johannesburg is. Enjoy it. It is great. Be a part of the change.