Promoting NMT: small is beautiful

Thanks to a UCT student for prompting this by asking “Without large and expensive investments for public (mass) transport or situations such as the cycle lanes in Rosebank/Rondebosch, what other options exist for promoting non-motorised transport?”

South Africa, it seems to me, is somewhat obsessed with big, infrastructure projects. Whether it is big freeways, or big BRT schemes or the “big” cycle infrastructure projects you mentioned. Whatever form it takes, South African government loves those big, sexy (expensive) infrastructure schemes. And yet, if you take a good look at the places where walking and cycling thrives (think Scandinavia, the low countries, small town UK, even Portland, US), for the most part this is not achieved on the back of big schemes like we see in Rondebosch, or next to the BRT. Rather, these shifts have been achieved thanks to decades of incremental, small scale, local improvements to junctions, crossings, local streets, local schools, residential neighbourhoods. By applying a road narrowing here, speed bumps or tables there, speed restrictions, play streets, one ways, traffic circles, traffic signal priorities for pedestrians, improved footways, landscaping (get the picture) local streets and then neighbourhoods have been transformed and (most importantly slowed). This is important for two reasons. Firstly to work well NMT” needs safe, comfortable door-to-door access which the big infrastructure projects can never give; secondly, investing in local areas has long term spin off benefits for landuse, for example making local areas and businesses more attractive (which in the long run cuts down on the necessity for car trips)….a win-win.

So, my medicine for NMT would be budgetary and organisational. Change and increase the local government transport and planning department budget lines to better support localised action, and get over the obsession with big sexy infrastructure schemes. Of course, such medicine is mundane, slow, and not as attractive to construction companies or politicians as the big schemes…..but its cheaper and in the long run, I believe, much more effective.

Who judges the gold BRT standard?

The Twitterverse has been abuzz this week with news that ITDP, well known transport US-based NGO have published BRT Standards. Generally the response has been salutory. I am less clear that this is good news.

In their book “Sorting Things Out” Star and Bowker argue that all standards are not simply technical, but are ethical and philosophical matters. They are ethical because decisions taken during the preparation of standards can have massive (unintended) downstream consequences; and philosophical since they deal at a very basic level with how we see and categorize the world, and with our very understanding of “reality”. You do not have to go very far in transport to see how this can be so. Mundane and seemingly innocuous “technical” decisions about road widths and curb radii embedded within technical design guidance such as the US “Green Book”, and translated to South Africa and across the globe during the 1960s, impacted on streetscapes. Streetscapes in turn impacted on speeds of vehicles, and so on quality of environments; on accessibilities by foot; on deaths in traffic; local economies…and so on. And on. Ultimately, seeming technical decisions in the Green Book (and elsewhere) about the infrastructure which makes up our cities were in practice decisions which valued the car over the pedestrian, speed over slow, efficiency over urban design. These guidelines embedded hierarchies of urban values, albeit disguised as technical guidance.
A standard which endorses particular ways of doing BRT, as ITDP’s does seems to me to be equally problematic. In putting themselves in the role of judge and jury ITDP are implicitly stating that (a) there is a universal best practice for BRT and (b) ITDP know what that is. So, the argument goes, Cape Town’s “best”, will be the same as Tokyo’s, Seattle’s, Caracas’s, Perth’s, Boston’s, Lagos’s, Bogota’s? Where is the local context, the deep understandings of the specifics of politics and social community. Where are the interests, wishes and desires of the local politic in all of this? It is in the assumption of knowing which is “best” in all contexts where ITDP’s standard is disappointing.
I admire ITDP. In my experience they are an energetic and well meaning group doing crucially important work in neglected settings. But this time, I think they missed the mark.

Random acts of kindness, and respect, on Open Streets

Bored with your daily commute? Here’s a game to play while driving around the suburbs. Give way to any pedestrians you come across : those trying to cross a road, at a traffic signal or stop street, pedestrian crossing or just some random spot. The reactions you will get are, as they say, priceless. My number one favorite is give-way tag. I stop and wave my hand saying: “please go”. The pedestrian, graciously, waves back, saying: “No! You first!” I gesture back: “Really! I mean it!” and then I nod and smile. “I am not mad!” I try to say. I really am happy for them to go, and so they trot across, grinning from ear to ear, bags flailing, thrilled to have been both gracious to me, and to get priority on a road. All this within the space of a minute. In return for my 30 second wait I get that warm feeling which comes from (as Princess Diana named them), “random acts of kindness”.

The reactions to these giveway gestures are many, and reflect the rich variety of the human condition. There are the surly young men who, with their swaggering tell me in body language that they, of course, have the right to the road and so it is only proper that I stop. There are the energetic women, who gallop across, glad for the break I give, but worried that the gap may close too soon. There are the schoolchildren who woop and sprint and nudge each other and giggle. There are plenty of grateful smiles, and proud lifted chins, but the most humbling are the old and frail. They simply look relieved. Finally, they seem to say, I have been noticed. Now I can have a chance to cross safely. Who knows how long that eighty year old stood there?

The reactions of fellow motorists are similarly varied, from shame, to dismay, through to astonishment and rage at my bizarrely deferential stance towards pedestrians. Truly, it seems this is odd, unacceptable, even revolutionary, behavior in Cape Town. The pedestrians crossing in front of me are frequently accompanied by scowls, or the horns of cars behind my stationary vehicle. I like to think of myself as humane for doing this, but others drivers seem to judge me as a radical. When did deference and respect for others become so counter-culture?

These experiences came to mind recently when I reflected, as part of the Open Streets working group, on our working tag-line, and shared aspiration, which is to “foster streets which embed and generate respect for one another regardless of who we are and how we move.” As working group members coming from different backgrounds, it took us a while to find this shared expression of what we believe in. Even now it can feel a bit idealistic, nostalgic even, for these commercially material and media-spinning times. But I firmly believe that aspirations like this have the potential to bridge barriers: of race, age, gender, income and neighborhood. It’s easy to talk about an integrated city, finding practical ways to make it happen is much harder. “Open Streets” as a philosophy, a daily behaviour, a programme, or as an aim provides one way of moving towards integration.

Changing the culture of our streets away from aggression, rage and disconnection, we believe, will require many changes. One change, possible for all drivers from today, is the embedding of respect for one another during the simple activity of driving through the City. This can mean small acts of kindness to others on the road. It can mean quite literally “giving way” on the street regardless of who you meet and how they move. It can mean slowing down while driving next to those walking. Or allowing the pedestrians time to finish crossing. Giving way to your fellow driver. Thinking the best of them, rather than the worst. These small daily random acts of kindness are commonplace in other cultures, and there is no reason why they can’t become commonplace in ours. Each one sends a small but powerful message about worthiness and equality. As well as respect.

The struggle to respect, and street scripts

In an earlier blogpost I wrote about my attempts to make “random acts of kindness” an habitual part of my driving day. Just in case my children should see that post; or the people who responded so generously to it (including an elderly lady with walking stick, and wheelchair users) should see me driving – I have a confession to make. I often get it wrong. I sail past pedestrian crossings which have children waiting to cross at them. I swing left and narrowly miss office workers.  I drive through. Past. Over. I confess, I confess! In truth, I often fall short of my aspiration to treat other road users as human. And yet it is also true that this is my deepest wish. I know it’s unfashionable, but I really want to respect other road users, especially those who aren’t driving. In fact, I spend a lot of my working life, and a good chunk of my spare time working towards this goal. So why is it so difficult?
Madelaine Akrich offers some clues as to why I, and many of us, fail despite our best intents. In her work on technologies she argues technological artefacts, like roads, traffic signals, curbstones and all the paraphenalia of the street, behave like a film script. This film script prompts us to act out our lives in particular ways. Thus a freeway scripts us to drive fast; a red light scripts us to stop, and a traffic circle scripts us to turn left. These examples are so obvious, even mundane that we take them completely for granted. Amongst those obvious “scripts”, though, are the less obvious and more insidious ones. A wider road, for example, scripts “speed”, even on a suburban street. Straight roads also script “fast”, regardless of the number of people crossing, or the schools nearby. South African road infrastructure scripts in millions of subtle ways and for the most part these scripts are for priority, and speed, to the car driver. In this daily drama the simple act of behaving independently, and counter to the script, is much tougher than we may think.
Tough, but not impossible. I re-commit to “random acts of kindness” on the road. And I close my ears to the laughter of my teenage children on the backseat when I fall short.
“Open Streets” opening more than just streets

“Open Streets” opening more than just streets

Photo: Jodi Allemeier
Photo: Jodi Allemeier

We guessed that about 5000 people came through to walk, skate, cycle or just be on the streets of Observatory, Cape Town on Saturday. We expected the locals to be there, we thought a few might drift in from the surrounding suburbs, but we didn’t expect the scale to which Open Streets drew different people in. Like the three well-heeled ladies who drove in from Somerset West saying they hoped to do something like Open Streets there. Or the mom with toddler in tow who said that she had been chatting with her neighbours about a street event like this in Plumstead where kids could come out to play, and chalk the road. Or the older guys from Maitland, keen to build community there, and wondering “how best to do it?” Or the kids from Khayelitsha, brought through by their mentors, and lapping up the attention. And of course there were the pick-n-mix array of Cape Town creatives in great number, and in all their glorious variety. People of vastly different incomes, ages, backgrounds – but all attracted to something about this Open Streets thing in Observatory. How so?

Open Streets is such a simple idea it can sound dull and until people have experienced it, it is a hard sell. Choose a day and close the street to traffic is one basic description of it. But beyond this apparent simplicity is also an invitation which cuts across our daily habits, and steps us into other possibilities. Open Streets allows us to come out onto the public space we normally call “roads”, without the usual barriers of vehicles and haste.  Like the gents who heaved a sofa onto the footway and watched the world go by; or the many, many kids who got down on their knees and chalked the road into a riot of colour; or the cyclists and skaters who meandered through; or the dancers who just kept dancing on. And on. We are ultimately curious, social creatures and Open Streets (like the Fan Walk before it) attracts us because at some fundamental level people love to watch, and be around, other people. And the outcome of Open Streets was a strange phenomenon which many remarked upon – there were just so many smiles. Surprised smiles, charmed smiles, smiles of realisation and children’s smiles. This is a rare, rare thing to see on our streets. The design of our South African cities boxes us up, separates us out, and rushes us though the public space we call roads. Open Streets not only opened up Lower Main Road yesterday, but it opened up us all. And that was what made it so special.

For more on Open Streets see or follow Open Streets Cape Town on Facebook

Vulnerability, cycling rights and road rules

Vulnerability, cycling rights and road rules

“Of course cyclists should use the road” she said. ” But they must follow the rules of the road. I just saw a cyclist going the wrong way down a one way. They are an accident waiting to happen, and of course the motorist will be blamed.” I gulped a little hard and looked down into my coffee, because I do that. I cycle the “wrong way” down a one-way road. I justify this because it saves me negotiating two right turns, narrow roads and, honestly, I dice with death to go that long way round. I looked down into my coffee because I am not an habitual rule breaker. I am the sort of person who blushes when stopped at a road block and is wracked with guilt until the SARS return is in. How, then, to explain my one-way street aberration? I justify it by seeing myself when cycling, for the most part, as a pedestrian on wheels. And because I see myself as a pedestrian on wheels, rather than as a small car, I can do things that pedestrians do. Like go down “one way” roads.

This particular definition of cycling is not uniquely mine, it is also reflected in the language we all use to describe things moving on wheels. So we will talk about an “accident involving two cars“, or of “a cyclist has been knocked over”. With motoring we talk of the vehicle as active. With cycling we talk of the person as active. To say “an accident involving two motorists” suggests an unfortunate event outside of the vehicles when two people bump into each other. To say “a bicycle has been knocked over” creates images of falling bicycles, perhaps in a shop. The language reflects a sense of the “cycle-plus-cyclist” being more about the human on it, and the “car-plus-driver” being more about the vehicle. So, is a cyclist more like a wheelchair user, then? Or more like a car? Because if cyclists are more like a wheelchair users, then they should be following a different set of rules from those of cars.
I don’t think there are any easy hard and fast rules on this. When I go out cycling with my 12 year old daughter I seek out places where she is treated like the vulnerable child she is. I want both of us to be treated as carefully as wheelchair users should be treated. I want to be safely separate from the car traffic. I want safe places to cross where we are given plenty of time, I want wide margins to allow her to make mistakes. In this case, I want us to be treated as more human than vehicle. Many “serious” cyclists lobby hard to be treated as car traffic. For them speed and ease of movement is key, and their sense of vulnerability is less pronounced then mine. These groups call for lanes which enable cyclists to be treated with the same rules as car traffic, but with some additional space and allowances.
There is, then, as with most issues in streets and traffic, no clear cut answer. The street is a place where we each negotiate for space, time and priority. This negotiation, though, is not equally matched. Motorists are somewhat protected from danger by their surrounding vehicles. By contrast, cyclists are very vulnerable, as the cycle road deaths clearly show. And so until cyclists can be ensured safety as road traffic, then they should be granted some rights to behave like pedestrians at times.