Outside of a box: experiences of commuter cycling in Cape Town

Despite Cape Town municipality’s attempts to paint some green lanes into its car-heavy road network, commuting via bicycle in the city is still a marginal practice. This is common to most urban environments. Human geographer Phil Jones observes in a study on cycling in Birmingham, UK, that “not everyone is willing to travel at speed balancing on a thin metal frame while tonnes of automobile thunder past, often within touching distance.”

What is it about this practice that draws commuter cyclists to their bikes daily? In this article, four Capetonians from different parts of the city discuss what makes the experience of cycling so compelling.

Jacques Sibomana, a communications and marketing manager, lives in Greenpoint. His office is in Harrington Street, just off the CBD. For him, cycling to work is pure logic: the distance is too short to drive by car, and cycling allows mobility in peak hour traffic. “People will be happier when they discover that on a bicycle they don’t get stuck in traffic,” he says.

It’s an obvious statement, but one that can only be fully grasped through experience. Jacques thrives on the ability to be mobile in an otherwise trapped, stationary situation. He describes traffic as a living organism that he must continually read to calculate his next move. This interplay between the body and its environment is closely studied by human geographers, who use the term “affect” to describe the intensity inherent in this relationship.

“I conduct the traffic as I go,” Jacques explains. He means this quite literally. Jacques listens to jazz and classical station Fine Music Radio through his earphones, following the tune of the music as he weaves between cars. On a good day when all the traffic lights are green, he can ride home within the space of one musical movement.

Another commuter cyclist in the CBD and director of Open Streets Cape Town, Marcela Guerrero Casas says her favourite stretch of her cycle to work is where Wale Street turns into Adderley Street. The momentum she feels on that downward bend is rewarding every morning. Cycling grants her a heightened awareness of her environment. She must be hyper-aware of everything around her, more so than when driving, because as a cyclist in Cape Town she believes she is largely invisible to pedestrians and drivers.

Both Jacques and Marcela are able to negotiate the fine balance of being aware and being meditative. Marcela uses her commute to debrief about things that are causing her stress. But “it’s a psychologically safe space, as being on a bicycle doesn’t allow me to get too lost in thought.” As soon as this happens, the outside environment pushes back at her: “I need to pedal and I need to watch,” she says. “I come back to the present moment.”

Norma Mcinga, an NGO co-ordinator who lives in Gugulethu, a large semi-informal township 15km from the CBD, doesn’t identify with the opportunity for inner musings while riding her bike: “To be honest, I don’t think of anything else because I’m so scared of causing an accident. And here, people drive recklessly,” she says.

But this acute awareness that comes with the act of cycling is stimulating rather than entirely stressful, she explains. “It makes you alert. There are different roads — some have pavements, some don’t. You must use your brain all the time. I don’t want to have a lazy brain.”

Based on the findings from his Birmingham study, geographer Jones notes that for cyclists “the positive elements of intense sensory immersion [are] frequently contrasted to the disadvantages of being stuck in a vehicular ‘box’.” This sensory advantage resonates with the experiences of cycling in Cape Town, related by the three cyclists above.

Norma describes her conflict with the minibus taxis in Gugulethu, closely felt through their hooting and overtaking. “It’s like I’m intimidating them,” she explains. “I’m cycling because I’m not taking a taxi.” In this way, riding a bike also frees her from any predetermined conceptual boxes. “I’m unique. In our community you never see a woman cycling. It’s something unusual.”

Back in the CBD, Marcela agrees: “Even though it’s scary at times, there’s something unique about it that gives me a little bit of pride. If it rains and I have my rain gear on, I feel like I’m stronger because I’ve decided to go out in the rain.” Outside of a vehicular box, “there’s no barrier between me and the physical environment,” she adds. “It’s clichéd, but it makes me feel alive. It’s that very physical experience.”

The fourth cyclist in Cape Town I interviewed was Jacob*, a parking attendant supervisor who does his rounds in the CBD on his bicycle. Like many other Cape Town commuters, money and distance limit his transport options: his home is 45-minutes away by bus. Perhaps the necessity of working by bike, rather than commuting, made his reasoning brusquer than the more experiential articulations of the others.

When asked how the experience of cycling differs in Cape Town to the Democratic Republic of Congo, his home country, he answered, “It’s not about my country. For me I can use the bicycle anywhere I go. It’s natural for me.”

Despite geographic or infrastructural barriers, balancing on a thin metal frame has a universal quality. In turn, as the cyclists I spoke with articulated, bodies on bicycles are granted intense relationships with their varying environments.


Megan Tennant is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and has a background in English, film studies and urban geography. She is currently practising as an urban researcher, with recent involvement in projects focusing on township revitalisation and mother and child urban health. 

Image via Linh Nguyen.

*name changed at request of interviewee

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2 Responses to “Outside of a box: experiences of commuter cycling in Cape Town”

  1. Kevin

    Fascinating article, well written and demographically representative. Certainly an under estimated mode of transport. Well done to cyclists who benefit our environment, relieve traffic congestion and who are willing to be different!


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