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In a city of 10 million designed around the car – but where most can’t afford one – could bicycles be the answer? The legacy of apartheid planning makes change difficult but cyclists are pushing and, crucially, they have the mayor’s support
“Minibus taxis are our biggest problem. They are dangerous. They just don’t care,” says Lovemore as he joins us on a dusty corner in Johannesburg’s Diepsloot township. We are waiting for a group of cyclists to form near the minibus queue, which in the half-light of 6am already stretches around the block. Lovemore consults his smartphone. Around 100 cyclists living in this informal area of makeshift shacks and dirt roads on the edge of South Africa’s biggest city use WhatsApp to coordinate their journeys – there’s safety in numbers. A couple more will be along shortly, he says.
The group have agreed to let me join them on their commute to the northern suburbs where most work as gardeners and security guards in luxury shopping malls or the electric-fenced homes of the wealthy. Once the group is deemed big enough we join the slow flow of 4×4 bakkies and cars heading into the city on William Nicol Drive, Johannesburg’s busiest cycling street. There’s a small but steady stream of people on old steel-framed racers and mountain bikes sturdy enough to cope with the potholes and broken glass.
Sure enough, not long after we set off, one of the ubiquitous Toyota Hiace minibuses swerves across the traffic, and us, to get to the kerb. Johannesburg may be a sprawling metropolis built for the car – but the majority of its 9.2 million residents can’t afford one. The city’s thousands of private minibus taxis offer a lifeline to their predominantly black users, filling the voids in the coverage of official public transport. With no fixed routes, it is a fluid – and in many ways fantastically efficient – system, but it is also unpredictable, with notoriously aggressive drivers.
If you’re lucky you’ll hear a bip on the horn before they cut across your path. A couple of years ago one of the Diepsloot cycle group wasn’t so fortunate: he was run over and killed by a minibus taxi. […]