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Why is Low-Carbon Transport So Important?

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford


The transport sector is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide, yet the circumstances under which these emissions are released vary greatly in cause and consequence. For example, transportation in and between cities is responsible for an estimated 70% of emissions worldwide, with the majority of these emissions being generated from high population density cities in the Global South. However, the uniqueness and diversity between cities’ histories and present-day realities, including the available infrastructure, societal norms and legacies of colonial rule and uneven development mean that efforts to achieve urban sustainability have to pay attention to such differences, rather than attempting to implement a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In this essay, I will compare the implementation of cycling as a low-carbon strategy of being mobile around two different cities - London in the UK, and Johannesburg in South Africa - to highlight the importance of place particularity in the pathway towards low-carbon futures.

The 2010 introduction of cycle superhighways, or now cycleways, has been a key focus of Transport for London as a way to encourage active travel and reduce vehicular traffic and congestion across the city, thus impacting greenhouse gas emissions as well as contributing to the overall liveability of London’s roads and public spaces. The first generation of ‘paint only’ cycleways has become extended into a second generation of cycleways physically separated from traffic requiring in many cases a complete redesign of the streets to accommodate. Despite some less than friendly attitudes surrounding road cyclists, there is generally widespread support for these cycle lanes as a environmentally friendly way to get about the city and avoid heavy congestion, as well as having the intended effect of cementing London as a world-class city with environmentally conscious initiatives.

Furthermore, cycling is seen as a way to achieve but also demonstrate to others one’s inner and physical wellbeing, becoming a symbol of the conscientious green consumer. City planners in London have therefore been able to capitalise on the status symbol that cycling is increasingly awarding urban cyclists, creating a cycling culture across the city. Although there are concerns of the ableist and gendered experiences of cycling, such as arguments that cycling promotes the ideal of a male, commuting and able body, these cycleways have become a popular approach to the issue of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions across London. To highlight this, as of June 2021, 450km of cycle lanes have been planned by TfL, with completion expected in 2024.

However, the implementation of cycleways across Johannesburg in 2007 has had vastly different results compared to the cycling commuter culture that has been fostered across London. Built as a way to encourage safer road experiences, as bicycle ways were physically separated from the vehicular traffic, the culture as seen in London did not materialise for several reasons. One such reason was that the low levels of existing bicycle ownership and high levels of crime acted as a barrier to shifts in transport behaviour, with only 29.6% of households owning at least one bike. Furthermore, widespread associations of cycling with poverty when compared to how cars where connotated with success and wealth shaped the uptake of cycling as a serious form of transport.

On top of these social and cultural factors, the physical design of the cycleways such as narrow width and insufficient separation from traffic, such as rumble strips instead of physical barriers often being used, meant there remained widespread concern regarding the safety of the initiative. Finally, the legacies of South Africa’s apartheid regime continue to shape the modes of transport available to citizens, as demonstrated through the robust automobile paradigm instilled by the apartheid regime’s investment in domestic petroleum from coal reserves whereby South Africa was able to keep self-sufficient during the fuel crises of the 1970s. This not only encouraged greater car ownership by privileged white families, but also led to greater investments in bridges and roads as congestion increased. Such projects continue in the post-apartheid period, such as in 2003, a bridge named after South Africa’s first president – Nelson Mandela – was unveiled, reinforcing the importance of cars over bicycles in the 21st century.

The use of cycleways has become a highly celebrated, if still sometimes contentious, approach to the importance task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the transport sector. However, the ways in which cycling is considered a panacea to traffic and congestion issues in cities fails to account for the particularities diverse cities face, and the multitude of complex factors that shape how easily cycling is able to be taken up in urban spaces today.

Further reading:

  1. Dias, G.J.C., 2019. Cycle superhighways (Doctoral dissertation).

  2. Hall, E. and Wilton, R., 2017. Towards a relational geography of disability. Progress in Human Geography, 41(6), pp.727-744.

  3. Morgan, N., 2017. Cycling infrastructure and the development of a bicycle commuting socio-technical system: the case of Johannesburg. Applied mobilities.

  4. Spinney, J., 2009. Cycling the city: Movement, meaning and method. Geography Compass, 3(2), pp.817-835.


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