Contested spaces. Contested lines.

(First published at Contested Space, April 22, 2014).

I proudly handed out my first bicycle map today. Thousands of hours of research, conversations and what I know to be hard fought battles to make cycling a more viable travel option in Cape Town. On a map. In your pocket.

I have so enjoyed exploring these routes, knowing where the separated lanes are, what routes cyclists prefer and where there are potential dangers. Yet, after hundreds of kilometers of commuting, I am still bothered by the way in which our city is progressing in cycling infrastructure terms. Yes, we are ticking all the right boxes, albeit slower than my ascent up Chapman’s Peak.

What is it that just doesn’t feel right?
What is the question we are answering?
And of course how can urban design add value to the countless hours already sown by cycling activists?

Here is my hunch. We are negotiating around contested lines, not winning contested spaces.

A continuous line drawn down Albert Road, in a few months designated as a delineated painted road surface will be cause for celebration for anyone who has traveled by bicycle. That is for sure. On a map it will look like a victory and it may affect driver behavior somewhat, yet the space will not have changed. The outdoor room that is the street will not, in its enveloping of public life, have changed at all. The contestation of space will continue although the contestation of the line would have been won.

As a newbie cyclist and urban designer, my first experience of commuting was intoxicating, poetic and spatial. A direct route is unlikely to seduce me from my car as much as a meander through a series of rooms that express the gift that cycling brings to the city. The interconnection of neighborhoods. Our unique contribution to the cycling city conversation is not only in the adoption and applicatiion of ‘Copenhagenization’ (its a word!) but we must connect spaces and communities that were previously separated. It is a spatial challenge as well as a linear challenge.

As a commuter, I dont just want to ‘go there’, I want to ‘know there’

*for the next month, I will be focusing on spotlighting conversations and aspects of bicycle commuting that point to and frame the legacy of the May 25th Freedom Ride. A social ride interconnecting Cape Town in honor of Madiba.

Kirsten is a freelance urban designer and architect in Cape Town. She is a passionate about translating urban design theory into usable tools for improving authentic city living. She is an advocate for social justice and is learning to become an urban bicycle commuter instead of just writing about it. Follow Kirsten on twitter: @contestedspaces

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