The four young men demonstrated sublime cycling skills as they weaved through traffic and shouted warnings and encouragements to each other. The sun silhouetted their dark skins and shone through the thin fabrics of their cycling jerseys. Their light racing bikes vibrated as they rolled over the potholed urban streets.
For me, sitting alone in a five-person-equipped vehicle smelling of stale pizza, caught in bumper to bumper traffic, it was a transcendent moment, taking me for a second out of my day-to-day world of deadlines, into something almost spiritual.
I’m not as big a cycling advocate as some in my community, nor indeed some in my family. The last time I rode to ‘work’ every day was as a high school learner. The last time I tried my current commute by bike, I was virtually run off the road by a taxi. If I hadn’t pulled over onto the sidewalk, I dread to think what may have happened, and the driver still had the cheek to flip the bird out of his window as he drove away.
There are many interesting things about political activist Job Amupanda and the AR Movement’s recently announced bid for the Windhoek Mayor’s office. One of them is his plan, announced in an opinion piece in The Namibian, to open a municipal-owned business manufacturing cheap bicycles for mass urban transit.
Bicycles do indeed have the potential to get workers and students from A to B quicker, more efficiently, and in a less polluting way than cars. The success of the Qhubeka project, which supplies low-cost bikes and cycling training to schoolchildren in South Africa, shows the sort of thing that can be done.
One of the problems preventing the mass uptake of cycling in Windhoek is true that most bikes are far too expensive, aimed at the sporting market, not at the average Joe or Joanna wanting a means of getting around.
I’m a car owner, but in truth, I’d do without if there were better alternatives available. Cars are symbols of power and status. They are frequently dangerous, hideously expensive to run, often unnecessary, and (because public transport is almost always more efficient) they represent the privatization of what should be a public asset.
Here’s the thing though, the thing that potential mayors and municipal managers and others who favor non-motorized transportation need to get: distributing a few bicycles, or a few hundred bicycles, by itself, is not going to cut it.
Changes in infrastructure are needed: If I’m going to start using my bicycle for something other than sport, I’ll want cycle paths and lanes, physically separated by curbs from the speed merchants in Corollas and BMWs. Also essential are secure places at central spots (Wernhil, Soweto Market, Katutura Hospital, Khomas Grove Mall, UNAM, NUST) where one can lock one’s bike and have it protected by a full-time security guard.
This cycling infrastructure needs to be linked to public transportation infrastructure for longer journeys. A commuter should be able to ride the 15 or so kilometers from Rehoboth town center to Rehoboth Station, securely park her bike, and take a fast TransNamib train into Windhoek for a day’s work.
There needs to be much better traffic law enforcement, so that, when cyclists do take to the public road, they can feel reasonably safe.
I annoy my friends by giving names to my bikes and cars. I called my current bike Charlotte, after Charlotte Maxeke, who was a South African anti-apartheid activist and vigorous campaigner against the dreaded, evil ‘pass laws’. It may be a ‘reach’ as they say on Twitter, but for me, bicycles and cycling can represent a small part of that, that holy struggle for freedom of movement.
But for that to work, we must invest in a few other things as well.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views he expresses here are personal. Follow his blog at ellishugh.wordpress.com or take in his Instagram feed at ellis.hugh