Four truths about roads and ‘unfinished’ freeways

Four truths about roads and ‘unfinished’ freeways

Lisa Kane_unfinished highway

Some years ago exasperated Professor of Transport Policy, Phil Goodwin took to the stage for his inaugural lecture at the University College London, with a lecture memorably titled, Solving Congestion (when we must not build roads, increase spending, lose votes, damage the economy, and will never find equilibrium). In it he took a well-aimed swipe at the ignorance about traffic which circulates as knowledge.

In the past 20 years this summary still stands as a piece of sense in a sea of rhetoric and exaggerated claims about the role of roads in the economy. As the news of plans to complete Cape Town’s (in)famous ‘unfinished’ freeways make headlines, yet again, it’s worth revisiting four well-researched truths about traffic:

  1. Roads generate traffic. The best metaphor for this research is of the fat man (traffic) with a tight belt (roads). Does adding a notch or two solve the fat problem? Does keeping the belt tight make the fat man more or less likely to stay fat? We know from research that in urban areas adding more roads simply feeds a culture of more and more car use. It does nothing to constrain that appetite for car travel.
  1. Roads do not solve congestion. Loosening the ‘belt’ (adding more roads) does, for sure give some immediate relief. But in the long term road-building generates even more traffic and the early-year benefits are quickly eroded. We don’t have to look further than Hospital Bend to see how quickly gridlock has resumed after the supposed relief of the additional lanes built at great expense to the tax-payer. On a larger scale the freeway city of Los Angeles, which suffers almost perpetual traffic congestion, should be a warning against the pursuit of road building.
  1. Travel behaviour is a process, not a state. Instead of thinking about fat men in tight belts, the metaphor transport planners use is that traffic is like water: It flows in pipes (roads). Improving the flow means diverting the water, into more and faster pipes (roads). But people are not water molecules. They are not the same. Less than two years after its launch we are already witness the impact of Uber on attitudes towards car ownership. What difference will Uberpool and other car share schemes make to how cars are used and to how traffic flows?
  1. Road building kills public transport. Public transport provision is a tricky, marginal business. It needs lots of people travelling on it to be viable. Public transport can quickly enter downward, or upward, spirals. In the upward spiral more people travelling mean that more buses are required, which means a more frequent service, which makes it more attractive to more people….and so on. In the downwards spiral the opposite becomes true. So road building and public transport are linked. And investing in roads reduces the viability of public transport.

We live in an era where almost everything points away from even more urban road building: climate change, technology developments, bus rapid transit schemes, pedestrianisation, high incidence of road-related deaths and urban renewal.

It begs the question why the completion of these freeways are even being considered as a sensible move?

On Friday, 10 June, I was interviewed John Maytham of Cape Talk about the issue of the unfinished highways. Listen to the interview here

‘Unfinished’ Foreshore Freeways – An unexpected monument to struggle?

‘Unfinished’ Foreshore Freeways – An unexpected monument to struggle?

Freeways
Eastern Boulevard Construction through District Six. Source: City of Cape Town Engineer’s Annual Report 1964

 

It’s almost fifty years since construction on the ‘unfinished’ foreshore freeways in Cape Town started. For most of the 1940s and 1950s the foreshore was a windswept, bleak sandy wasteland beyond Adderley Street. It had been reclaimed from the sea for the construction of a new port during the 1930s, but by the early 1960s the new land hadn’t been developed  yet. The intervening period was one of intense wrangling between planners, politicians and engineers about how to develop the area. In 1963 a committee comprising a Detroit traffic engineer; a Bishops educated, British Professor of Planning; and a local engineer finally articulated an idea for a freeway route around the city. It was typical of thinking at that time.

This new freeway would provide a fast route for national traffic from the western suburbs of Sea Point and Camps Bay to connect with the N1 and the rest of the country. It would also provide a freeway up Buitengracht Street as far as Shortmarket Street. The silent sixties in South Africa meant public reaction to most things, including such road building, was muted. When the Eastern Boulevard (now named “Nelson Mandela Boulevard”) cut through District Six housing in 1963/4 there was little response registered by the engineers. By 1972, however, the mood had shifted dramatically. Awakening heritage, conservation, environmental and civil rights movements started protest the development of these urban freeways. The huge arches of the foreshore freeways were suddenly labelled by the local press as a “concrete dragon”.

Similarly, outrage was being expressed in the US where freeways had been built through downtowns . The roads ripped through “black neighbourhoods” and contributed to the rising civil rights movement in a series of ‘highway revolts’. South African road engineers, returning from trips to the US, were shocked by how dramatically the mood in the US had shifted against the very urban freeway construction that South Africa was in the midst of. Returning from one such an overseas tour in 1968 a senior National Transport official argued strongly that National Government should no longer subsidise urban freeway building. Over the course of the 1970s urban road schemes across the country were either quietly dropped or downgraded. By the mid-1970s attention had shifted away from the Cape Town CBD to the then new Mitchells Plain, which required huge roads and service infrastructure investment to fulfil the Apartheid plan.

So yes, officially the foreshore freeway was stopped because the money ‘ran out’; it ran out because the international civil rights movement was waking up while, ironically, the Apartheid machinery was gearing into action. In this sense the ‘unfinished’ freeway can be seen as a physical manifestation of the struggle for human rights in making of cities. It stands as a memorial to painful struggles both at home and elsewhere.

The catastrophic consequences of demolishing freeways. Not.

The catastrophic consequences of demolishing freeways. Not.

Existing masshouse infrastructure

masshouse-changes
Photos courtesy of Birmingham City Council

There has been an air of impossibility surrounding discussions about the Foreshore and catastrophizing about the traffic chaos which ‘will’ ensue. (Catastrophizing which, by the way, should be taken with one very big pinch of salt). The protestations are so dramatic, one would think that Cape Town is the only city to face traffic congestion and a busy inner city core.

Urban enthusiasts are already familiar with the North American examples where elevated freeways have been removed without descent into Armageddon (and instead with many benefits to the cities concerned). These benefits include better access to all areas along the road (previously inaccessible); unlocking new opportunities for land development; better pedestrian access; opportunities for public spaces; and reduced noise. I love these pictures of the UK city of Birmingham where a ring road built in the 1960s was part of the reason for the city’s grimy and dreary reputation. The City council saw the potential to bring the road infrastructure to ground, unlocking large packages of land. Latest news is that these packages of inner city land have been sold for residential apartment blocks, generating a new wave of inner city life which keeps the centre vibrant while relieving the need for so much car space for commuters. In light of ongoing tension over housing, particularly inner city housing, it’s really time that the debate over freeways also allowed for a more informed discussion about demolition.

 

God-tricks and the Foreshore

God-tricks and the Foreshore

Dec 2010 093 edited (762x1024)

It has been seventy years – a lifetime – since the first models for the Foreshore were presented to the Cape Town public. The 1947 model proved to be surprisingly resilient, even if the sweeping boulevards and monumental parades that it presented fell out of fashion. The three-dimensional 1947 model lived for many years in a civic centre lift foyer, beguiling passers-by.

2017 Foreshore proposal (576x1024)

The models and visuals of the latest exhibition of the Foreshore are equally entrancing. They allow the visitor to get a full sense of the scale and grandeur of the current proposals. Visitors can move, as if in an airplane, through the air above the city and see the future visions below.

Donna Haraway calls this way of seeing the “god trick”. Being above such models distances the observer and creates an illusion of all-knowingness. The observer is omnipresent, the Foreshore is under control. The view from above is cleansed of complexity. Looking at models like these of the Foreshore creates a fantasy view. No human will live this version of the Foreshore.

Donna Haraway suggests that instead of god-tricks we could we pay more attention to “diffracted views”. These deny the idea of a single Foreshore story, whether based on roads, or elevated urban parks, luxury apartments or low cost housing. She challenges us to become more open to knowing from a location, and from a particular body.

In practice, what would that mean?

It would mean moving beyond god-tricks, and getting into human bodies, from the proposal stage. It would mean representing experiences of humans in and through the Foreshore proposals, in all their complexity. The woman driver on freeways, on streets, in parking. The man on foot. The child in pram. The householder in high-rise, under freeway, next to port. The business woman in the waterfront, in the City, in the Bo-Kaap. The refugee.

This is not common practice. It feels too complex for planning purposes and for certain it would require Cape Town’s built environment professionals to stretch even deeper into their creativity. But the history of planning in the Foreshore area shows that the many voices of Cape Town will have their voices heard and their experiences validated, despite the god-trick arguments of the engineers and planners. History shows that people can and will call loudly and powerfully for attention. Which is partly why the Foreshore is “unfinished” to this day, despite the impressive models of the decades before.

Freeways: who decides what’s re-presented?

Freeways: who decides what’s re-presented?

Foreshore dragon
Source: Cape Times. April 7, 1973 and Louis De Waal clippings collection

The Foreshore Freeways have been controversial from the outset. As the Long Street extension to Culemborg section was being built in the early 1970s the National Monuments Council unleashed an attack on the City of Cape Town for ‘indiscriminate development’. Fury focused on the potential impact of the planned Buitengracht Freeway section of the scheme.

Consultants warned that public opposition could stop the Buitengracht Freeway section and advised that the road be depressed, in order to alleviate the visual intrusion from the scheme. The costs, though, did not impress the Council Executive Committee, nor did the prospect of a ‘canyon’ through this part of Cape Town. Three years later the Buitengracht Freeway issue was still unresolved, and was deliberated by a new inter-disciplinary Environmental Advisory Board, who rejected both the elevated and depressed schemes and instead proposed a ground level alternative. A year later the matter was still unresolved, and residents in De Waterkant also weighed in with opposition, claiming that ‘a huge elevated freeway’ would be a tragedy for the townscape of old Cape Town. A new Committee of the Institute of Architects was formed, called ‘Urban Vigilance’, who countered the engineering consultants’ sketches in circulation with their own.

Buitengracht freeway
Engineering sketches of Buitengracht freeway
Urban vigilance Buitengracht
Architect sketches of Buitengracht freeway

So I am wondering, will we get to see any street level views of the proposed schemes? And if so, who decides what gets re-presented?

Freeways and “as-built” bias: elevated, depressed or something else?

Freeways and “as-built” bias: elevated, depressed or something else?

Citylift proposition

Citylift’s proposition for the Foreshore – a built earthwork ‘berm’ to replace the existing foreshore freeways, with buildings elevated, and cars hidden – looks radical at first glance. We must be careful, though, not to suppose that just because something (elevated freeway structures) are familiar, they are necessarily best. A rummage through the engineering reports of the 1960s, when the built schemes were under design scrutiny, tells interesting stories of early design decisions and the rationales behind them.

The much mooted underground tunneling of the freeway scheme was actually considered in the 1960s, but rejected on cost grounds. Professor Holford, one of the assessors on the Shand Committee which deliberated on the scheme at the time estimated R3,500,00 for a depressed (underground level but open) scheme and R1,600,000 for an elevated Table Bay Boulevard scheme. Quite how this elevation should take place, though, was undecided until the late 1960s. The 1968 engineer’s design report estimated that elevated structures (as we see them today) would be 8% more expensive than an earth retaining wall…but the engineers argued they would be justified on aesthetic grounds, and on the ability to retain parking underneath. The costs subsequently escalated well beyond these early estimates.

We need to beware of bias towards what is familiar and judge each scheme on its merits today.

“Lean and elegant”: The poetics of freeway building

“Lean and elegant”: The poetics of freeway building

Graphic from Proposal B
Graphic from Proposal C

“Our proposal starts”, said one of the Foreshore bids “by re-arranging and completing the elevated freeways in a lean and elegant way, thereby resolving the key traffic bottlenecks and improving traffic flows all across the surrounding road network.”

‘Lean’, ‘elegant’ and the resolution of traffic bottlenecks is not text-book civil engineering, but these words do evoke a long poetic tradition in traffic engineering texts.

When the first high speed roads for the foreshore were proposed by City Engineer Solomon Morris in 1951 they included a plan to depress part of a ring road across Government Avenue.

Morris wrote: “The bridges will be sympathetically designed in keeping with their sylvan setting, whilst the terraces and rockeries forming the banks will be planted with shrubs and other flowering plants so that no interruption or disturbance of the garden effect takes place…Indeed there is no reason why these proposals, if effectively carried out, should not enhance rather than detract from the beauty of the gardens and the Avenue promenade. The new vistas and the additional interest created by the difference of level, as well as the movement of traffic below the level of the gardens, will all help to enliven the scene, adding a touch of activity to the peaceful beauty of the surroundings. One may well imagine the pleasurable contemplation with which the passer-by through the Avenue will, from the quest seclusion of his elevation, gaze undisturbedly on the swift-moving traffic below.”

1951 Government Avenue

From: Metropolis of Tomorrow, 1951

Sylvan settings, lean and elegant roads, pleasurable contemplations, new vistas and gazes….Despite the use of scientific rationality and logical connections traffic engineering is, ultimately, about planning for the future. Planning, as Throgmorton has so memorably argued, is the art of persuasive story-telling. And as we can see from the texts it produces, engineering will try to persuade using whatever means have most power: numbers, graphics, models, presentations and even, if required, poetry.

‘Unfinished’ Foreshore Freeways – Let’s start with a clear brief

‘Unfinished’ Foreshore Freeways – Let’s start with a clear brief

The morning of Tuesday 21 June – I’m listening intently to the Mayor and Mayco Member for Transport, Councillor Brett Herron talking about proposals for the foreshore precinct. It’s rather surprising: “Whether the unfinished highways stay or go, are completed, or redesigned altogether, is for the proposed bidders to put forward” . This is not as focused on completing freeways as the earlier statements from the Mayor. This is more about land-use development; about bringing in the creative private sector; about open and transparent public participation. This is welcome. It’s balanced. It’s exciting. It’s different to what has gone before.

Then again… perhaps it’s a bit too enthusiastic about the ability or interest of the private sector to develop this land. But the statements from the podium are open-ended enough for a range of proposals to be put forward. It looks like the City is taking a wait-and-see approach.

My main concern is that there’s nothing in the statements (other than calls for affordable housing) about safeguards for ensuring good and plentiful public space, but this might be balanced out in the process of public involvement…

I’m feeling quietly optimistic. That is, until the Mayor is interviewed on the John Maytham Show later that day on the topic. Now she is stridently insisting that completing the freeways will be part of this scheme. She insists she has said so! I check the press statement again: “…part of the conditions for the development will be that it includes the funds to complete the unfinished bridges, alleviate congestion and provide affordable housing”.

Same statement – conflicting views on finishing the freeways or not.

If this process is going to succeed it needs a clear and visionary brief from the City; a brief which enables the design teams to do their own work. This brief should not prejudge the creative process. It should sketch out a vision, and not any solutions. It should trust in the design and engineering professionals to do what they do best.

A clear design brief is an absolute necessity. My hope is that the City will have the time, vision and wisdom to do just that, if nothing else, before 8 July when the Bid documents are released.

Dreams of freeway utopias: who benefits?

Dreams of freeway utopias: who benefits?

Futurama viewers

In the Spring of 1937 Shell Oil Company employed stage designer Norman Bel Geddes, to create a scale model of the future, utopian auto city for shows in New York and Detroit. Shell promoted this model, dubbing it the ‘City of Tomorrow’. The head of the Bureau of Street Traffic Research predicted that American cities would be rebuilt in this way in the next 25-50 years. During 1939-40, General Motors (GM) put on a major exhibit at New York’s World Fair, commissioning the same Bel Geddes to expand his Shell model to much bigger proportions. They called it ‘Futurama’.

In the first summer of the Fair, more than 5 million visitors traveled on conveyor belts to look down on the GM ‘Futurama’ model exhibit, as if from an airplane window. In Futurama free movement of autos was evoked across vast panoramas. The film of the exhibit, ‘To New Horizons’ (1940), evoked an America where there was freedom from want, and where mobility – social and physical – meant movement in cars on free-flowing expressways.

In the 1940s South African engineers toured US highway engineering departments and in 1951 the Cape Town City Engineer’s department published ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow’. The document suggests that Futurama-style thinking was important to the South African engineers too.

Sixty-five years on, looking at the Foreshore exhibitions, I wonder: are we still dreaming of a South African Futurama where road space is abundant and a free-flowing utopia is possible? And if so, who benefits from such dreams?

20170308_141258 (3)
Detail from Proposal C