COP17 bikes slow to catch on

JOHANNESBURG -- The beginning of COP17 was supposed to mark the unveiling of Durban's new bicycle network. But a week into the conference, the bikes have seen few takers.

JOHANNESBURG -- It seems one of the cleanest ways of getting around Durban during the two-week long COP17 UN conference on climate change is not very popular with either the delegates or locals.

The beginning of COP17 was supposed to mark the unveiling of Durban's new bicycle network, one cog in a transportation machine that is meant to ferry delegates around the coastal city. Along with a shuttle system set up specifically for the conference, four bicycle rental stations have been set up around the convention area. These stations are also a testbed to see if they can provide a lasting, cheap alternative to personal cars and minibus taxis in Durban, and ideally the rest of the country.

Yet a week into the conference and the bikes have seen few takers. Station manager Robert Varty told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that while he is optimistic that the bikes will catch on, he thinks there are some major obstacles in the way.

In order to rent one of the bikes, a rider needs to make a $62 credit card deposit that is refunded when the bike is returned. Conference delegates can ride one of the specially designated silver bikes for free. Yellow bikes are set aside for the general public for $6.20 per hour for up to a maximum flat-fee of $25 for four hours or more.

The price is steep for South Africa, and the payment method is impractical for a vast majority of people here. In a country where only one out of every ten adults has a credit card, it's unclear who this system is built to serve.

South Africa has grown much faster than its infrastructure. After almost two decades of democracy, this growth has done little to correct the inefficiencies of apartheid-era city planning. Most people live far from where they work, often relying on informal and sometimes dangerous public transpiration to get them around. Although there have been efforts to  remedy this , the new rail and bus lines take time to build and are prohibitively expensive for many in the country.

Bicycle rental hubs like the ones in Durban seem like a workable solution --a quick, possibly cost effective and easily scalable mode of transportation that could be applied throughout South Africa.

Varty thinks that fear is keeping delegates and the rest of the public off of the bikes. Many South Africans don't share the road well with bicycles, and even riding in the newly designated bike lanes throughout Durban can put a rider in danger.

The program will run alongside the conference until Dec. 9. After that, the silver bikes will be open for the general public to rent, and the yellow bikes will be donated to local schoolchildren.

Photo: Stefan Kuschnigg/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com