Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

I just got back from a week in Seville, Spain at the Velo-City global bicycling conference. Velo-City began as a european bicycling conference in 1980 and was held bi-annually since 1987. As of last year, it became an annual event and opened its doors to presenters from around the world.

This is great progress. However, to what extent are issues in Africa relevant to those in Europe? Can Cape Town learn from Amsterdam or Dallas learn from Copenhagen? How much is “knowledge sharing” between such radically different contexts valuable?

At this year’s event, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the few folks who had made the trip up from the lovely “country” of Africa since it is a part of the world which is still a bit of fuzzy territory for me. Most of these people were from English speaking countries in southern Africa, and many of them were ex-pats themselves working on various bicycle related projects.

It became rapidly clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issues people are addressing in Africa are in a completely different universe from those in Europe.

In the global north, cycling is seen as a means of urban transport which is promoted mainly by city planners as a means to reduce motorized transportation for health, “liveability”, and environmental sustainability. Most of those of us involved in this movement are well educated and generally reasonably well off as are most of those actually cycling. Most people have access to other means of transport such as busses or cars and are choosing the bicycle, perhaps in addition to other modes.

By stark contrast, African projects were dealing with people (often women) who were typically rural, poor, and do not have access to other means of transportation. The goal of many of these projects is to give people greater mobility, thereby decreasing the amount of time necessary to access basic needs like jobs, water, food, etc. Most people working in this sector come from international development, not urban planning.

This contrast was perhaps starkest in the fourth plenary session with Kayemba Patrick from ITDP in Uganda and Joaquin Nieto from the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development discussing economic benefits of cycling.

Nieto spoke about how European bikeshare programs create jobs for cities (largely through what I would consider to be high degrees of inefficiencies in redistribution and maintenance). Patrick spoke about how getting access to a bike reduces the amount of time women in rural Uganda have to spend getting water and access to economic opportunities. They were then engaged in a discussion afterwards where it was clear that neither one of them really had any idea how to find any sort of common ground.

Another strange pairing was between Marie Kåstrup from Copenhagen and Gail Jennings from Cape Town speaking about women and bicycling. Kåstrup spoke about the “cycling girl” narrative in Denmark where woman and cycling are portrayed as soul mates, which logically and intuitively serve as icons for the national past time of cycling. In Denmark, almost as many women bike as men. Jennings talked about how woman are sexualized in their portrayal next to bicycles, with images of women in tight mini-skirts sexually pumping air into tires. In Cape Town, most cyclists are riding for sport- not transport- and about 75% of cyclists are men. Very few women ride bicycles and to do so is to ask for censure at every turn.

The point here is not to get into discussions about the specifics of these issues (I refer you to the people mentioned for those details). My point is more to question what we hope to gain by bringing people together from different contexts and what can be learned from “European best practices” from Copenhagen, Amsterdam or anywhere else.

There is a growing cadre of professionals who would like you to believe that a bicycling culture is something that can be readily “transferred”. It’s easy. Simply find somewhere that lots of people ride bicycles, copy the infrastructure and policy that “worked” there in your home town and then stand back and wait for people to start riding.

But guess what? What works in Copenhagen may not work in Cape Town.

What I heard from many people coming from the global south in particular was that they didn’t really care much about what was going on in Europe. What they wanted was to share knowledge between cities in the global south. South African cities probably have more to learn from cities (and rural areas) in India than from Europe.

The same is likely true in the global north. Gas guzzling Dallas came to Velo-City to learn how car-centric Seville has seen increases in bicycling from 0.5% to 6.6% in the past three years. Dallas planners won’t be making any trips to Copenhagen, even though Danes bike 37% here in the capital city.

A Velo-City global venue may still be useful but we still need to do some thinking around how, exactly, it is useful. In the meantime, we need to be facilitating venues for the sharing of knowledge between similar cities and working to develop context specific solutions from a deep understanding of local needs, not trying to make Cape Town into the next Amsterdam.


11 responses to “Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

  1. Pingback: Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town? « RIDE YOUR CITY

  2. Pingback: North/South perspectives: A cyclist is not a cyclist is not a cyclist | World Streets and the New Energy Spring

  3. I have to agree with you that culture and place is so different that when advocates mythologize that one size fits most it is just spinning of wheels. It is good to put your voice out there. As I write from Minneapolis USA the bicycle season for it’s bike share has yet to start. The Nice Ride MN share program is one of those schemes, build it and they will come. Of course Federal dollars and settlements from a Tobacco lawsuit helped finance the scheme. Will keep you posted as developments take shape. On another note, our Twin Cities has broken ground on a light rail 11 mile system that will disrupt (ie close) business on a major retail thoroughfare between the two cities. We have one of the best cycling city’s in America making minor gambles with bike share and major gambles with inner city rail. I would say I am for rail and bikes but the planning of these are seriously degrading the quality of our place. For one, if bike share fails then bicycling in general is set back. And while the rail is being built, business and residents are impacted in an economic time that it may be decades before the urban rail corridor bears economic fruit. If some places would advocate to leave our cars behind that might actually be enough to get citizens to bicycle and use the existing public transit. But, like the mortgage and tech bubble, alternative transit has also created its’ own bubble.

    • @dominic: Interesting points. I don’t know enough about Minneapolis to comment on the specifics. I wrote a piece about bikesharing that might be of interest ( I argue that their main contribution may be to legitimize biking as a means of transportation- eg, not just sport or recreation. They are good marketing for biking, can serve to push for a political agenda for policy and infrastructure, can be a “gateway drug” for newbie bikers who want a trial version, and can actually be better than ownership for some users by taking away barriers like parking, storage and theft. So far, not a lot of great numbers on bumping up ridership directly per se but these things are changing as people get more used to the systems.

      As for trains, I think we should be trying to figure out how to integrate all modes. Bikes are great, but won’t work for all trips. We should get rid of divisive terms like “cyclist” and “driver” and my least favorite “alternative transportation”. We should instead be thinking of people who have mobility needs and how we can facilitate those different needs through integrated mobility-as-a-service solutions. We need to bring the car down from its high horse as a one stop shopping option, and think instead of a variety of alternatives for mobility. We need to facilitate and enable people to make decisions for their trips on an as-needed basis. Carsharing is a step in that direction. Peer-to-peer carsharing is the next step.

      I don’t know if the light rail will kill existing businesses, particularly in the current financial times. However, I wouldn’t be surprised. Often, radical revisions to transportation infrastructure will lead to restructuring of neighborhoods and the types of people who travel through them. I often wonder if pedestrian streets just lead to outdoor malls (for suburbanites?). Even if those existing businesses survive the construction, they may not survive the subsequent changes to their clientele. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (from the city’s perspective- though obviously not from the individual shop owner’s perspective) but I do think it is well worth bearing in mind and being cautious about.

  4. Good post!

    I share the angle of the author. But I want also to add two little points:

    – There is a third world between North and South and I think this is exactly where I live in. Mediterranean countries are settle in the middle of nowhere. Not Northern, nor Southern. Or maybe yes. The more Northern from Southerns and the more Southern of Northerns. In our world, people don’t use so much bicycles as transportation even if we enjoy a enviable weather. Women are yet a bit undervalued and men are stuck behind a wheel. In this universe, bicycles have still a poor perspective, despite the huge invest many municipalities have done spending lots of government grants on awful cycle paths and shared bike issues.

    – When you look at Seville as a model, let me tell you that, even though they have pushed many people into the bikes, they have not reached the numbers they “sell”. Not a 6,6%, but a 4,1%. They forgot to count pedestrians… and they represent around a 35%! When you compare Northern cities such as Copenhagen or Amsterdam with Southern European cities, you must take care of this. Southern cities are much more pedestrian than Northern. Urban structures, geographic elements and a different way of living could be the reasons why bicycles are not such succesful as in the North. A cultural factor must be also considered.

    So this is not as simple as a dicotomy. World is complex, and so that is interesting. This all said ignoring the differences between East and West.

    Greetings from nowhere’s land.

    My font:

    • @Eneko: thanks for the comments. I completely agree- Spain is a far cry from Denmark as well. There is also even a significant difference between Copenhagen and Malmö just across the bridge in Sweden as well as between Copenhagen and smaller towns in Denmark which have much lower rates than the capital (with a few exceptions like Odense).

      I think there are many shades and nuances beyond the broad brush distinction between global north and south. “Africa” isn’t one country- it’s a continent. What works in Cape Town won’t necessarily work in Nairobi either, let alone Mumbai or Hanoi.

      Here I just wanted to highlight the stark contrast between “north” and “south” to suggest that we need to start thinking in a more refined manner about who can learn what from whom and how best to facilitate that learning process. There may even be ways that the “north” can learn from the “south” but we have been too blinded by the idea that we are “ahead” to consider learning anything from those who are “behind”. We need to have a very clear understanding of the cultural, physical and political context in which these strategies take place. Unpacking these differences is the project I am attempting with this blog.

      On a side note, I also had my hunches that 6.6% was overstated but didn’t have any evidence to suggest otherwise. 37% in Copenhagen is also high. These numbers depend on who’s doing the counting, what and when they are counting and what their motives are…

  5. i love the word ‘Copenhagenizing’ the word i would have chosen is ‘Copenpatronizing’

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