We are trained as engineers and planners to think of streets as inert things. In a blunt, material sense this is absolutely true but streets have their own life histories. They are not, as the technical manuals suggest, created from no-where. From a vacuum. All streets, indeed all material things, have different histories.
In fact: “Our streets could have been different”.
And with different streets, then also different urban lives.
As cities exploded and automobility rose in the early decades of the twentieth century, then owning and driving cars was mainly an activity of the elite. The micro rules of traffic engineering and street design were made to reinforce the priority of this mainly white, male car driving elite over others.
Streets thus embodied a power hierarchy and an elitism.
One problem, perhaps the transport problem of our time, is that physical materials change their embodied power hierarchies, their politics, a lot slower than governments do. It’s easier to write a democratic Constitution than it is to re-orientate the infrastructure of a country along fairer lines. The starting point, though, is an acknowledgement that streets have histories; and that these histories have politics.
For now, our South African streets embody respect for those with vehicles.
And disrespect for those without.