Commuter Revolution

This column by Simon Gear first appeared in Runners World SA in 2011/2012

It’s 6am in London and I’ve just got back from an epic morning run.  The reality of business travel is that you land up living in two time zones at once, so I had been up since 3am Greenwich Mean time in order to cover my radio commitments back home, and then trotted out for a run without fully realising quite how early it was.

Hyde Park went past in the dark.  At Buckingham Palace, the flag on the roof implied that her majesty was home but not even the guards were in evidence.  The protestors outside the Houses of Parliament were still snugly wrapped up in their sleeping bags, and when Big Ben struck a quarter to 6, only a cold, wet Bobby and I were around to hear it.

After 6, the city began to wake a bit, and I first noticed the enormous number of cyclists on the road, obviously taking advantage of the pre-rush hour gloom to get into their government offices before Westminster traffic got properly going.  If there is one thing that has changed in London in the 17 years since I first came here, it is the rise of bicycle commuting into the city . Not only are people whizzing back and forth on their own bikes, but Boris Johnson, the world’s funkiest mayor, has started a system of rent-a-bikes that seem to get plenty of use too.  So entrenched is cycle commuting that there are now as many signs protecting gawping tourists from bikes as there are warning of busses.

All of this lead me to thinking about why we can’t get the same thing right back home.  The first obvious point is that South African cities have hills.  My 10 kays across London this morning included only two climbs – and those were in and out of a pedestrian subway system.  Cycling across London is a matter of getting up to speed and then coasting along for miles, barely turning over.

But with a bit of thought and ingenuity, we could get over this.  Despite publicity to the contrary, most of Cape Town is pretty flat.  Jo’burg commuters have the luxury of the world’s longest park to adapt to a green commuter route.  A path along the Braamfontein Spruit would allow 17km of uninterrupted and fairly flat cycling from the suburbs into the heart of Sunninghill.  I can’t figure out how to make Durban flat but none of my friends who live there do much work anyway.

When I punted this to my fellow South Africans over breakfast, I got the usual rolled eyes and mutterings about the terrible taxis.  I won’t accept this at all.  To avoid urban improvement because of an outdated privatised bus system is to be held hostage by the past in the worst possible way.  London has a tenth of the available space that we have, and fifty times the cycle paths.  It is time to wrest ownership of our urban spaces from the whingey grumps, and actually do something to set us on the right track. We’ve done it with the huge big stuff like the Gautrain and the Soccer World Cup.  Why not with something as simple and small budget as a bike rental system in the centre of Sandton?

South Africa is rightfully proud of our crown as the mecca of mass participation sport.  No other country can boast the number of weekly athletes, over as wide a range of running, walking and cycling events, as we can.  I think it is high time to spread that influence into our broader lifestyle.  Where is the sense in a country where ten thousand people wake up before dawn each morning to run and ride, and then all return home to spend an hour sitting in traffic.

We have had the democratic revolution.  We may well be in the early throws of an economic revolution.  It is high time that we runners stood up to be counted and revolutionised the way that we live in our cities.  We don’t need a miracle, just a few kays of pavement and a shower in the basement.

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