The Bicycling Empowerment Network

BEN LogoCape Town, and indeed South Africa, has first and third world communities living alongside one another. As a result of almost 50 years of legislated apartheid – during which time entire communities were removed from healthy, clean and socially integrated areas to racially separated, remote and dusty “townships” – access to opportunities was forcefully removed from the majority of the population. While this process has begun to slowly reverse itself during the past 13 years of democratic government, with a series of development, re-settlement programmes and improving social conditions, much racial division and separation still exists. Many communities spend hours each day treading long dusty paths to places of work or to schools, or out simply searching for work. Others have to pay hard-earned wages for costly and at times inefficient and unsafe forms of public transport.

It is in the spirit of this environment that the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) was established, in Cape Town in February 2002. The main mission of BEN is poverty alleviation through the promotion of the use of the bicycle in all of its forms – to enhance low-cost non-motorised transport and to improve health through linking exercise and mobility. Together with local and international partners, BEN facilitates the transportation of bicycles from Europe to Southern Africa, the establishment of bicycle workshop projects, the distribution of these bicycles to strategically selected groups of recipients and the planning and introduction of bicycle user paths and integrated linking networks.

Bicycles are for mobility and job creation, for sharing and unifying communities. Over the past five years BEN has explored and implemented the establishment of bicycle projects in nine rural and urban townships; delivered more than 4,000 new and 3,500 used bicycles to schools, places of work and farms – with community-based organisations and outreach events. BEN has trained the young and the old in bike maintenance, road safety and brought about a growing understanding of the value of bicycles as a form of mobility. The nine new BEN bicycle empowerment repair businesses have been established in areas where there is a great need for low-cost mobility and the newly employed project managers provide long-term support for the community and indeed their bicycles. BEN serves on a committee with the Cape Town City and Province of the Western Cape to look at bicycle infrastructure for the city and surrounding township and rural settlements.

As a result of these partnerships and programmes a bicycling city is emerging in Cape Town. But much still needs to be done. For BEN, these are (a) more bicycles being used for more purposes by more diverse population groups (b) greater interest shown by various beneficiaries, stakeholders and potential partners in this outcome (c) greater involvement and commitment by the relevant city and provincial authorities in these programmes so as to ensure the necessary policy and infrastructure is realised and (d) parallel programmes and events to help promote of these ideals.

During the past five years, Cape Town and the Western Cape Government have taken small strides to realise this vision of a bicycling city in supporting BEN in the distribution of these commuter-style bicycles. These commuter bikes complement the established racing and recreational market already existing in South Africa. More bicycles are now being used on Cape Town roads, for a greater variety of reasons and purposes. Kids are cycling to school in townships, suburbs and rural areas. Many have received training in the maintenance of their bicycle and safety on the roads. Adults are beginning to use more bicycles, for more reasons – as they begin to realise the efficiency, low cost and health benefits of this activity. BEN was invited as a partner and contributor to the strategic planning of the future of Cape Town and the Western Cape in respect of roads and transport – and how communities move and go about their daily lives. Many events are being planned at regular intervals – Bike to Work Days, Car Free Days, School Bike events, all of which helps to raise the consciousness and status of cycling in South Africa and, it is hoped, this will extend to other parts of Africa.

With a growing population and a struggle to access education and employment, the bicycle may just prove to be the answer to communities in need of low-cost, efficient and environmentally sound forms of transport. Cape Town is beginning to demonstrate that, with successful partnerships, this can be achieved.

By Andrew Wheeldon

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