North/South perspectives: When a cyclist is not a cyclist is not a cyclist

If you look at that Sempé time-phased cartoon of the other day in World Streets, “A Short History of Social Mobility“, the lesson that leaps out at us is that what we are seeing in terms of cycling in the richer parts of the world is a phenomenon that in both economic and social terms is very specific to those places. And if by contrast we are looking for more universal lessons, especially for people in the poorest developing countries where there is a crying need for better, more affordable mobility, we may need to look elsewhere. Let’s hear  what our friend Ezra Goldman has to say on this score after an enjoyable week with the cycling buffs in Seville for the annual Velo-City global bicycling bash. (Followed at the end with a few words on our a-borning Africa Streets collaborative project. )

Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

– Posted  by Ezra Goldman

I just got back from a week in Seville, Spain at the Velo-City global bicycling conference. Velo-City began as a european bicycling conference in 1980 and was held bi-annually since 1987. As of last year, it became an annual event and opened its doors to presenters from around the world.

This is great progress. However, to what extent are issues in Africa relevant to those in Europe? Can Cape Town learn from Amsterdam or Dallas learn from Copenhagen? How much is “knowledge sharing” between such radically different contexts valuable?

At this year’s event, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the few folks who had made the trip up from the lovely “country” of Africa since it is a part of the world which is still a bit of fuzzy territory for me. Most of these people were from English-speaking countries in southern Africa, and many of them were ex-pats themselves working on various bicycle related projects.

It became rapidly clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issues people are addressing in Africa are in a completely different universe from those in Europe.

In the global north, cycling is seen as a means of urban transport which is promoted mainly by city planners as a means to reduce motorized transportation for health, “liveability”, and environmental sustainability. Most of those of us involved in this movement are well educated and generally reasonably well off as are most of those actually cycling. Most people have access to other means of transport such as busses or cars and are choosing the bicycle, perhaps in addition to other modes.

By stark contrast, African projects were dealing with people (often women) who were typically rural, poor, and do not have access to other means of transportation. The goal of many of these projects is to give people greater mobility, thereby decreasing the amount of time necessary to access basic needs like jobs, water, food, etc. Most people working in this sector come from international development, not urban planning.

This contrast was perhaps starkest in the fourth plenary session with Kayemba Patrick from ITDP in Uganda and Joaquin Nieto from the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development discussing economic benefits of cycling.

Nieto spoke about how European bikeshare programs create jobs for cities (largely through what I would consider to be high degrees of inefficiencies in redistribution and maintenance). Patrick spoke about how getting access to a bike reduces the amount of time women in rural Uganda have to spend getting water and access to economic opportunities. They were then engaged in a discussion afterwards where it was clear that neither one of them really had any idea how to find any sort of common ground.

Another strange pairing was between Marie Kåstrup from Copenhagen and Gail Jennings from Cape Town speaking about women and bicycling. Kåstrup spoke about the “cycling girl” narrative in Denmark where woman and cycling are portrayed as soul mates, which logically and intuitively serve as icons for the national past time of cycling. In Denmark, almost as many women bike as men. Jennings talked about how woman are sexualized in their portrayal next to bicycles, with images of women in tight mini-skirts sexually pumping air into tires. In Cape Town, most cyclists are riding for sport – not transport- and about 75% of cyclists are men. Very few women ride bicycles and to do so is to ask for censure at every turn.

The point here is not to get into discussions about the specifics of these issues (I refer you to the people mentioned for those details). My point is more to question what we hope to gain by bringing people together from different contexts and what can be learned from “European best practices” from Copenhagen, Amsterdam or anywhere else.

There is a growing cadre of professionals who would like you to believe that a bicycling culture is something that can be readily “transferred”. It’s easy. Simply find somewhere that lots of people ride bicycles, copy the infrastructure and policy that “worked” there in your home town and then stand back and wait for people to start riding.

But guess what? What works in Copenhagen may not work in Cape Town.
What I heard from many people coming from the global south in particular was that they didn’t really care much about what was going on in Europe. What they wanted was to share knowledge between cities in the global south. South African cities probably have more to learn from cities (and rural areas) in India than from Europe.

The same is likely true in the global north. Gas guzzling Dallas came to Velo-City to learn how car-centric Seville has seen increases in bicycling from 0.5% to 6.6% in the past three years. Dallas planners won’t be making any trips to Copenhagen, even though Danes bike 37% here in the capital city.

A Velo-City global venue may still be useful but we still need to do some thinking around how, exactly, it is useful. In the meantime, we need to be facilitating venues for the sharing of knowledge between similar cities and working to develop context specific solutions from a deep understanding of local needs, not trying to make Cape Town into the next Amsterdam.

# # #About the author:

Ezra Goldman got a BA in anthropology at Reed College, a master’s in city planning at MIT and is presently a PhD Student at the University of Copenhagen. He is particularly passionate about driving the future of sustainable urban mobility, with a particular focus on bicycles and shared use vehicle systems.  This article was published in his blog “On our own two wheels” on April 3rd and is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission. The site is an experimental collaborative blog where the readers are also its contributors. It aims to serve as an enabler to connect urban bicyclists from all corners of the world to share their personal experiences in an informal manner. The grand aspiration of the blog is to get at least one contribution from each country in the world.  (Maybe you should get in touch with your article.)

# # #
A word from the editor on Africa Streets

We have in fact been giving thought to the very particular mobility needs of this great and needy continent. To that end, in mid 2010 we created a frame for an African Streets program, which you can visit today at And while it is still an empty box – we are still trying to spread the new to bring in working partners as you can see on the site itself – let quote here some of the opening text on the working site:

“In a fair world it should be impossible to ignore close to one billion of the poorest people on the earth living in its second-largest and second most-populous continent. With already one-third living in cities, most of whom in slums, with the flow of people from the country side continuing at record rates.

“The transportation arrangements in most people’s daily life in Africa come in several flavors: ranging from world-class traffic jams making it close to impossible to negotiate the streets of the larger cities for hour each day, to at the other extreme no provision for vital survival transport (water, wood for fires, food) for the remainder of the continent.

“Now the fact is that most of transport policy and investments on the continent are aimed at the creation and extension of motorized transport infrastructure. And it is precisely this strategy that had led to the present imbalance.

“The key to unlocking the African Streets challenge can be summed up in a single phrase: Fair transport for women and children. What works well about this, is that when women and children are fairly served everybody ends up being better off. This can and should be our central theme”.

Want to be a part of Africa Streets? Once you have checked out the draft site, we invite you to get in touch via

5 thoughts on “North/South perspectives: When a cyclist is not a cyclist is not a cyclist

  1. Good post!

    I share the angle of the author. But I want also to add two little points:

    – There is a third world between North and South and I think this is exactly where I live in. Mediterranean countries are settle in the middle of nowhere. Not Northern, nor Southern. Or maybe yes. The more Northern from Southerns and the more Southern of Northerns. In our world, people don’t use so much bicycles as transportation even if we enjoy a enviable weather. Women are yet a bit undervalued and men are stuck behind a wheel. In this universe, bicycles have still a poor perspective, despite the huge invest many municipalities have done spending lots of government grants on awful cycle paths and shared bike issues.

    – When you look at Seville as a model, let me tell you that, even though they have pushed many people into the bikes, they have not reached the numbers they “sell”. Not a 6,6%, but a 4,1%. They forgot to count pedestrians… and they represent around a 35%! When you compare Northern cities such as Copenhagen or Amsterdam with Southern European cities, you must take care of this. Southern cities are much more pedestrian than Northern. Urban structures, geographic elements and a different way of living could be the reasons why bicycles are not such succesful as in the North. A cultural factor must be also considered.

    So this is not as simple as a dicotomy. World is complex, and so that is interesting. This all said ignoring the differences between East and West.

    Greetings from nowhere’s land.

  2. Obviously, the ability to apply best practice experiences from one locale to another is based on a variety of characteristics. But there are plenty of first world-first world problems, let alone first world-third world problems. OTOH, nothing prevents us from learning from a variety of settings and making applications to our own settings–there’s a lot to be said for the intellectual challenge posed by seemingly atypical conditions.

    The key is having the right frameworks in place in order to be able to compare places on a variety of demographic and spatial characteristics to determine how places are similar or different and how to try to bring about change–in this case with regard to sustainable transportation–appropriately and effectively.

    In some respects this post is a continuation of the thread on international conferences and encouraging what we might call “indigeneous access.”

    I am all about frameworks. In my work on commercial district revitalization, in the US, primarily in center cities, but based on Washington, DC, which is a strong real estate market (these are all factors which make a difference when you compare communities), I have found by modifying a set of criteria about evaluating neighborhoods that I can compare most communities, regardless of city size, because we are really looking at neighborhoods/neighborhood commercial districts, which can be rated on whether or not they are Successful, Late transitioning, Early transitioning, Emerging, or Distressed, that you can rate the residential sector separately from the commercial sector (this was a methodological leap from the traditional CD analysis), you can do it at the block level, and you can recommend differential policies and programming dependent on where you are on the ladder, in terms of blocks, commercial districts, and residential neighborhoods.

    With regard to biking, what I find frustrating about examples like Copenhagen isn’t just whether or not they are first world, high income places, but they have a number of characteristics that support biking (or sustainable transportation) in ways that aren’t currently present in the United States more generally.

    – relatively strong center cities (in the US, most center cities continue to leak population and have extremely high poverty rates)
    – center cities not suburbs (in the U.S. most population lives in the suburbs)
    – gasoline prices are high because of excise taxes
    – there are extensive transit systems (most US communities don’t have access to high quality multi-modal transit systems; most local transit systems consist of bus services, and are seen as primarily a service for low income riders)
    – there are excise taxes on car purchases (such taxes in the US are minimal)
    – parking spaces/permits can be difficult to attain (generally this is not the case in the US, although finding street parking in NYC is extremely difficult. Only Toronto in North America appears to charge comparatively “high” rates for residential parking permits, as much as $50/month. By comparison, it’s $15/year in DC.)
    – the cost of obtaining a driver’s license is expensive in both money and time
    – the walking/transit city spatial/urban design pattern has been maintained
    – activity centers/employment centers tend to remain based in center cities

    PLUS, they have been at it for 40 or more years, there is a recognition that the change process is in fact a process, and there are incremental improvements on an almost annual basis.

    Note that this is far more important than the idea of “biking culture,” as promoted by the city of Copenhagen, Copenhagenize and others. Culture is constructed. They tout that they have a special culture. I think that’s a big misdirection. The reality is that through a variety of steps, they have designed and produced a land use and mobility system where biking is often the best, more time efficient, most cost effective choice. So people ride. Topography helps.

    I sometimes get paralyzed in a public meeting when someone spouts off “why can’t we be like Portland [etc.]?” because they don’t want to hear from me an explanation of the change process in a place like Portland, about the fact that Portland got to be the way it is starting with tearing down a waterfront freeway around 1970, and by developing a transit-focused downtown master plan in 1972.

    The point I make is that we don’t need the 40 years that they did, but we do need time, and the ability to build a system incrementally.

    Anyway, with regard to the lament about dealing with a variety of economic conditions, we still have those issues in the first world, we just don’t deal with them systematically, as we should but usually don’t, through bike and pedestrian planning, which tend to not systematically address the take up and maintenance of biking by demographic (age, gender, household type, income, race/ethnicity).

    Frankly, in Africa where you don’t have to compete unequally with the car industry as we do in the U.S., bringing about greater bike use ought to be much easier. On the other hand there is the issue of road quality and the ability to buy a bike.

    Anyway, the issue is creating robust frameworks for analysis and implementation, comparable to the recent discussion about the “terrain” of bike sharing.

    I would offer some factors as a start for the development of a master framework (maybe some exist, I haven’t looked into it)

    Demographic factors

    – age
    – gender
    – household type
    – income
    – race/ethnicity

    which are dependent on

    National and State Characteristics/Policies

    1. Level of development (first world, third world, etc.), average income, etc.
    2. State of land use development and policy (compact development vs. sprawl paradigms)
    3. Rate of automobile penetration and prevalence.
    4. National Mobility network (roads, transit, and bikeways) and planning. Places like Quebec have excellent provincial plans. Germany and Switzerland have amazing national plans (so probably do many other countries, but I have poked through these particular ones). On the other hand, a national or cross-national set of bike routes doesn’t matter all that much to someone who needs to get from her village to the hospital a town or two away.

    as well as Local Planning, Policies, and Systems

    1. Local-state mobility network (roads, transit, and bikeways)
    2. Scale at which bike networks are planned and implemented (neighborhoods, districts, cities, multiple jurisdictions, state/province, national).
    3. Spatial organization of the road and bikeway network. Cities, towns, and villages have distinctly different opportunities than do suburban and rural communities.
    4. Programming

    I offer this as a start.

    Note that I have sent queries to this list and others asking for recommendations about best practices for suburban communities, and have never received a satisfactory answer.

    Last year I produced a bike and pedestrian plan for a 120 sq. mile section of Baltmore County, Maryland. This plan has extensive recommendations on programming and government process redesign.

    I also did a presentation on best practice bike planning for suburban places, making the point that most everything we read/hear about in terms of biking trends have to do with cities. It’s available on scribd. And it’s discussed and the link is available through this blog post:

    Richard Layman

  3. Thinking about what I wrote a little further, and something like this might already exist, I’d suggest the creation of a collaborative research and innovation network focused on biking as transportation for developing countries. The idea would be to get states/nations/towns from Africa, Asia, and Latin America working collaboratively on the issue, like the change networks sponsored by the EU (e.g., for sustainable transportation) or the UN.

    Another thing I was thinking about is the challenge that exists with maintaining biking in the face of rampant automobilization. We are familiar with this issue as it relates to China. The national government has decided that automobilization is key to the country’s economic development, and supporting, strengthening, and extending the ecosystem of automobility is a primary govt. goal. (Sure they are building subway systems and high speed rail systems, but…) With this comes discouragement of biking, even restrictions on biking in some places.

    Of course, in the post-industrial west where we are learning that oil supplies aren’t unlimited and that street and highway networks are not only costly to build but are costly to maintain, and maybe unaffordable, in places like Copenhagen and New York City etc. we see the advantages of biking in terms of what E.F. Shumacher would have called “appropriate technology”–that for trips of 1-5 miles, a bike is cheaper and a lot less expensive to support than a car, that bikes take up much less space/person within the road network than do cars, and that you don’t need oil to run them. We might call this a post-industrial sustainable transportation agenda…

    So one of the research questions that this proposed collaboratory/community of practice ought to consider would be the challenge in the so-called developing countries of maintaining focus on sustainable transportation as a primary economic goal and objective, especially biking, through such periods of economic transformation.

    It happens I am reading a book right now, Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century, which is a very good discussion of what we might call the development of the eco-political system of automobility in the U.S., how it was constructed figuratively and literally, and how part of the agenda (to sell more cars) had to be the fundamental destruction of railroads–both freight and passenger–and fixed rail transit.

    Given that I remember a quote about China in the 1980s, from a GM executive in an article in the Detroit Free Press, that went something like this:

    They are so poor. You hardly see any cars at all. No one owns their own car.

    I imagine that the process of transformation to an automobile-centric society and economy is going full force in China right now, in a manner very similar to that described in the book cited above.

    Richard Layman
    Washington, DC


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s