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Updated 25 June 2013

Clean machine

Where do all the bikes go the morning after the Argus? Given their multiple benefits, these beautiful beasts should grace our streets every day of the year.

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Where do all the bikes go the morning after the Argus? Given their multiple benefits, these beautiful beasts should grace our streets every day of the year.

For one glorious day in March, bicycles - over 35 000 of them - rule the Cape Peninsula: a river of rushing, ticking silver, the alternative transport lobbyist's moist-eyed dream.

And then they’re gone.

Each year, my simple bicycle-commuter-activist heart swells to see that shining throng: The Revolution will not be Motorised! We’re not Blocking Traffic, we are Traffic! Etc. But come Monday morning, it’s lonesome as ever pedalling along the bicycle-poor streets of Cape Town, host to the largest timed cycle event in the world.

The irony is that Argus Tour participants are overwhelmingly members of the automobile class; or, put another way, of the middle-class (there’s the hefty entry fee, not to mention all the latest body-hugging gear).

That inspirational silvery crowd disappears the morning after because it’s gone back to business as usual – on four wheels. A bicycle’s place is at the weekend, its status primarily recreational: a plaything, nice for Sunday jaunts but otherwise a bit of a low-tech joke.

Yet this humble beast of burden has credentials deserving of serious respect:

Meanest, greenest
The bicycle is a wonder of energy efficiency that leaves other forms of transport in the dust. To get a rough idea: a hundred calories (burning fossil fuel, and glucose, respectively) powers most cars less than 100m; it powers a cyclist about 5 kilometres.

In many developing world countries, bicycles are the no-nonsense work-horses of everyday commuting, the only affordable alternative to walking for millions.

In the First World, too, bikes are increasingly considered a valuable supplement to motorised transport, an under-utilised means of easing the escalating urban congestion, accident rate, environmental destruction and oil dependence of car culture.

King of the short distance
Despite its many virtues, however, the bicycle as a transport option is no easy sell in a country such as ours, where urban space is still distorted by apartheid-era planning.

Cape Town, a prime example, is one of the most sprawling, lowest density cities in the world, making commuting distances enormous for the majority of its citizens.

Even though a bicycle is considerably better than no means of transport other than weary feet, expecting people to brave the N2 on two wheels from, say, Khayelitsha to the CBD, in a howling south-easter or winter rainstorm, while dodging violent crime and the motorised, is asking too much.

Where the bicycle really comes into its own is over short distances. The shorter the trip, the greater the relative gain in efficiency for cyclists. Short car trips use more petrol, cause more vehicle wear-and-tear, and are more polluting: most emissions in a short trip (10-20km) are generated in the first couple of kilometres before the engine warms up. So, if not to work, then at least bike to the corner cafe or video shop. Which should be a piece of cake after 109 kilometres...

Saddle up, save the world
Those thousands of post-Argus bikes, idle in garages and store-rooms across the country, represent a lot of potential energy. Because every time you get in the saddle instead of behind the wheel, you're transformed into a dynamo of good deeds:

You save money and resources, not just yours but the nation’s. Bikes are far cheaper to produce and buy than cars, and require only food as fuel. Switching to cycling, even just for trips within five kilometres of home, saves a motorist a couple of thousand rand a year in fuel costs alone. And it’s cheaper than going to gym.

You save time. Yes, really. As more cars clog city streets, motorised traffic often moves slower than bicycles: car speeds at peak times sometimes average only 8km per hour. For short urban trips, the bicycle is often faster, provides easier access and presents no parking problems.

You save the environment. Motor vehicles are the single biggest source of air pollution, and also one of the top generators of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. Urban air quality will inevitably improve if more people bicycle-commute, particularly when substituting for those highly polluting short car trips.

You save yourself. Non-motorised commuter alternatives promote cardiovascular health and weight loss, and reduce traffic noise and congestion, thus helping lower everyone's stress levels. Studies have shown that commuter cyclists are less likely to suffer from hypertension and heart disease, and benefit their employers with higher productivity because they take less sick leave, and are less often late for work.

Plus there’s the occasionally satisfying David and Goliath stuff: frail human against brute machine, noble underdog of the urban battlefield. And, really, cyclists can allow themselves a little pride, because it’s tough on the streets. Which were designed, after all, for cars. You’re literally sidelined, practically squeezed into the gutter, that tightrope between kerb and bumper.

When you’re not invisible, you’re often shouted, hooted or laughed at. If you’re female, particularly, you’re in for choice comments of the "I-wish-I-was-that-saddle" variety. Capetonian and Portelizabethan cyclists ride into the teeth of winds that make the most precipitous San Franciscan hill enviable. You get to experience true urban grit – the noise, smog, glare, broken glass and road-kill (most often found, ominously, in the cycle lane) – first-hand, without a windscreen buffer.

But a veteran road warrior waits for those moments that make it all worthwhile... slipping like a fish through bumper-to-bumper traffic, looping your bike lock round a friendly pole while cars endlessly circle the block for a parking place. And knowing that you’re keeping in good nick for the one day of the year you'll be taken seriously.

 

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