There’s little that’s more frustrating than watching a cyclist whiz by when you’re trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Such an expression of freedom and effortless circumvention almost always inspires thoughts like “F#*k that guy, inverting the urban pecking order” and “I could do that if I wanted to.” To this assertion – the I could do that – I say, well, why don’t you? The only thing stopping many city dwellers from commuting by bicycle instead of car is a decision to do so.
Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing twice and expecting different results. I define insanity as rejecting a solution to a problem only because it seems a little ‘alternative’. Consider how we have found ourselves in our current mess – traffic jams for days and air pollution thick enough to be described as soup. People started driving to work because it was faster and it conserved their energy (also, horse-drawn carriages were going out of fashion). But then, when traffic got worse and the sky darkened, evolution (which had gotten man so far) failed him. Instead of taking the next progressive step, he stayed in his car and accepted his fate (clutch-burning stop-and-go and drivetime radio).
I realise that this is a generalisation. There are cities where most people travel by public transport or bicycle, but these examples (Portland, Amsterdam) only bolster my argument that South Africa’s cities and urbanites should give serious consideration to using bicycles to help solve the worsening traffic problem. In the next few paragraphs, I show you how – with a few adjustments – you can also commute by bike. But first, I look at the less obvious benefits of this growing global trend.
Firstly, bicycle commuting is just more fun. While driving only involves the mind-numbing clutch-accelerator on-and-off, bicycle commuting demands that you negotiate traffic and alter your course as opportunities present themselves. With a myriad of possible routes and shortcuts, it can feel like a game – you versus everyone else in a race to get to your destination first. They’ve got combustion engines, traction control and power steering, and you’ve only got pedal-power. Still, with a little creative route-finding, it’s quite possible to get there before them and do so while reducing your carbon footprint.
And cycling is, of course, healthier. How many calories do you think you burn wearing out that clutch. Sure, your calf is getting a workout, but that’s about it. A 70 kg cyclist, on the other hand, burns over 500 calories per hour on even a moderate ride. You could work off a whole burger just on your way to work and have a lot more fun that if you’d spent an hour thrashing an exercise bike in the gym. Revisit those new year’s resolutions to get into shape and consider what a regular cardio workout would do your overall fitness and serotonin levels.
No parking problems
Parking is another reason to cycle into the city. It’s getting harder and harder to find parking in the city, and if you live in a place like Cape Town, you can expect to pay up to R130 a day to park on the street. With a bike you simply find a pole or bike rack, chain your bike up, and walk off. A bicycle’s compactness (relative to a car) has another advantage. If you go out for a few beers after work, getting home with your ride is a lot easier too. You just take off the wheels and put frame and wheels into the back of your Uber. If you had driven, you’d have to take another taxi to retrieve your car the next day.
Unless you can cycle to work without sweating (see tips in the footer) you’re going to need a shower and change of clothes. Besides the distance of your commute, this is the only real factor determining whether commuting to work by bike is viable. Sweatiness plus no shower equals very unprofessional smell. If you’re a business owner or commercial property owner, you might want to take heed of this. If you want to appear green but haven’t already installed showers, you need to. It would also be a good idea to install lockers so that people can keep work clothes like shoes and pants at the office if that would be more convenient for them.
You can ride in the rain, but sometimes it’s better to get to work some other way. Winter storms in the cape can deliver strong winds that can be dangerous to cyclists. On such days you need to have a plan B – either a taxi or your own vehicle. But even on on days when it seems like there is only a chance of rain, it would be a good idea to carry some wet weather gear with you. It’s also a good idea to carry a bike light incase you work late.
A reliable ride
You could ride your regular bike to work, and it would get you there on most days. But geared bikes have derailleurs, and derailleurs have the nasty habit of throwing a hissy fit just when you most need your bike to work properly. This is not a problem if you are using your bike on weekends or even after work – when 30 minutes to align a derailleur is not an issue. But you don’t want to have to tinker with your transport on the morning of a big presentation.
For commuting you want something reliable, something uncomplicated… something with as few moving parts as possible. Intro the single speed and fixed gear bike. These minimalist movers have no derailleurs, no cassettes, and no shifters, making them both more reliable and lighter – the most important attributes of any city bike.
As enthusiastic advocates for bicycle commuting and the whole single speed movement, our aim is to inspire and inform, which is which why we are also publishing this mini guide on street survival. Now, go forth and ride.
Tip: If you’re in for a potentially sweaty ride, wear clothes that breathe and put your work clothes in a bag that you can load on a pannier. A backpack will only give you a sweaty damp patch on your back.
Words by Jean Paul de Villiers