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MOVEMENT: the Bicycle

Andrew M Wheeldon, MSc - Bicycling Empowerment Network

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is a protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
- Nelson Mandela, 2005

"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."
- H. G. Wells

Since c.1865 the bicycle has been a powerful innovation in movement by providing Mobility and Access for all. Democratic freedom, without access, is not freedom at all.

The long bike ride to freedom requires innovative techniques, partnerships, creative thought, reaching out to one another, and the enhancing of communities.

Bicycle mobility enables poverty reduction by offering opportunities. Improved bicycle mobility in both rural and urban areas results in:

  • increased social cohesion
  • greater access to food, clean water, education and employment opportunities
  • potentially reduces the negative impact of motorised transport on the environment
  • facilitates a greater sense of our SA community
  • we can see, smell, touch and feel the area through which we travel
  • and, as South Africans, we can learn so much more about one another

We can do this by building a model of community sustainability.

We also need to measure the extent to which the increased sustainable access/use of the bicycle as a form of mobility affects:

  • Economic poverty
  • Lower cost of mobility
  • Environmental poverty
  • Cleaner air, access to water
  • Societal poverty
  • We move with one another

Challenges to movement

  • distance
  • time
  • cost
  • infrastructure
  • weather conditions, topography
  • comfort and style
  • accessibility


  • bicycles are low cost, efficient, healthy and more convenient than one would think
  • bike paths, sidewalks, parks and public transport facilities are members of the same family, and distant cousins of private vehicle freeways and roads
  • if we plan the movement and mobility of all South Africans based on the needs of those most at risk, not the convenience of those most privileged at the expense of others, we will be planning truly democratic cities for all...

A brief history
Industrial transport & communication timeline:

  • 1771 canals and waterways
  • 1829 railways
  • 1875 rail, port, shipping
  • 1880 bicycles the chosen individual mode
  • 1890 cars (bikes alone only had ten years)
  • 1908 mass autos, electrification, radio
  • 1971 telecommunication, IT, micro-chip
  • 2005 renewable energies and transport
  • 2015? bicycles are the mass mobility of all

What has the motor car done?

  • The first documented fatality from a car accident occurred in Crystal Palace, London on 17 August 1896 when Bridget Driscoll (UK) walked into the path of a vehicle moving at 6.4 km/h (4mph)
  • In the 115 years since, the motor vehicle in its various forms has been responsible for 100m+ deaths globally
  • This is close to all the deaths in all the wars of the 20th century – estimated to be 160-200 million.

BEN South Africa
Our organisation was established in 2002 as a Civil Society Organization for public benefit. We imports used utility bicycles from Europe, China, US, Canada, Australia, and the UK.

BEN’s mandate is to:

  1. establish Bicycle Empowerment Centres (BEC’s) and train managers
  2. Train school children and adults in safety, skills, and the culture of using bikes
  3. Distribute bicycles to low income areas
  4. Facilitate expert exchange programs
  5. Advocate for bicycle infrastructure
  6. Inform policy development in Mobility

BEN has established partnerships with the Netherlands-based Interface for Cycling Expertise (I-CE) and the Shova Kalula (Pedal Easy) project of the South African National Department of Transport (NDoT), as well as the cities of Cape Town, Tshwane and Johannesburg.

NDoT’s Shova Kalula programme aims to address the issue of the mobility of children. Of the 13m + school learners in SA:
9m + walk to school; while
3m + walk more than 1 hour per day to school – resulting in absenteeism and fatigue.
BEN has been tasked with the programme assessment and the delivery of one million new bikes, supported by the Department of Education, to assist the travel of learners to school.

To date, the BEN Bicycle distribution includes:
Bicycle Empowerment Centre’s (BEC’s)
Schools – Primary and Secondary
Corporates/ Companies/ NGO’s
District Health Care Programs
Municipality staff (Transport, LA21 etc.)
DoT (Shova Kalula), with BEN as a service provider
Events such as Car Free Days; Bike to Work Days, Redhill Challenge, bike counts and bike park day
Involvement in the Tour d’ Afrique; Cape Argus Cycle Tour; Cape Epic,, and Big Ride In Day.

At the Velo Mondial 2006, economist Margaret Legum observed, on the role of bicycles in tomorrow’s economy:
“The history of labour arrangements shows a shift from slavery to serfdom, and to employeeship – broadly comprising people working for others; there is much evidence to suggest we are now moving to a new phase where work will comprise livelihoods rather than jobs, when people will work for themselves. The bicycle, as a means of transport, fits perfectly into this paradigm and, by its very nature, is profoundly democratic.”

Bicycle Empowerment Centres
The goals of BEN’s Bicycle Empowerment Centres (BEC’s) are:

  • An independent projects within every 5km radius
  • Unemployed, semi-skilled project managers trained and set up with businesses – to sell and repair and train
  • Training includes basic accounting and finance, bike maintenance, safety skills, project management, community liaison
  • Stock of bicycles + tools for the ‘container’ workshops
  • Linking of BEC’s with surrounding schools, organisations, infrastructure projects, tourism
  • To create a bike neighbourhood in your community.

To date, seventeen BEN Bicycle Empowerment Centres are having a positive impact on the lives of children and adults in the communities in which they are situated, through:

  • Bicycle training at schools:
    • Schools based and Adult training
    • Bicycle maintenance skills
    • Bike road safety skills
    • Learning to ride for the first time?
    • Correct clothing - for comfort and to look cool
    • Acceptance of peers
  • School route map training:
    • Safe routes to school;
    • Knowledge base – distances and time

Home-based Health Care Workers: with bikes, care workers’ visits have increased from 7 to 18 patients a day.

  • Policy and planning:
    • Workshops to establish safe bicycle infrastructure
    • Cape Town (BEN/I-CE MOU 2007)
    • Pretoria/Tshwane (BEN/I-CE MOU 2008)
    • Johannesburg (BEN/I-CE MOU 2009)
    • National Dept of Transport: policy advice
  • BEN CSO consulting
    • NDoT policy framework guidelines
    • City bicycle distribution programs
    • Linking planning and distribution projects

True democratic cities cater for those that are most at risk – be they economically, physically or otherwise challenged – in a dignified, friendly and welcoming manner. This makes for a fair, free, democratic and equitable city. The greater the gap of privilege and advantage provided for those with economic or social power over those without, the greater the inequality of the society. The bicycle is one of the brilliant inventions of the past 125 years that brings equality to society, that allows us to both move about and meet one another as equals, whilst demonstrating our compassion and care for the environment in which we live. With the simple and humble bicycle we are able to care for the environment, our health and for one another. It allows us all to be able to truly say ‘this is my city, place, environment - I can see it, breath it, smell it, and live it – and I can move freely and democratically about it’.

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