I’m back. Nervously and apprehensively. Unsure. Behind this though, and urging me on, are some tugs of courage to do something different. I stopped blogging a year ago because of the wooden-ness that had crept into the posts. I didn’t like what they had become (what I had become?) They read like so many other surly posts about streets and cities and traffic. “IT NEEDS TO CHANGE!” they screamed, judging and condemning the people who had been involved with the processes en route.

I do think “it” needs to change (street design, that is, and planning for cities, especially here in South Africa) as too often streets feel and act like places of aggression, rather than our home on this earth. I want to talk more of the role of streets in our precious lives and I want to acknowledge the role of respect for humanity and dignity of the person in street design.

More than that, though I want to carve out a small place in the cyberspace where I can talk out about the messy, maddening and sometimes hair-tuggingly frustrating act of working in places which seem to lack compassion for humanity, for the weak and vulnerable. I want to use blogging as a place to reflect on what works, what really doesn’t, and what I haven’t a clue about in all of this. I want to do this in a way which celebrates the reflective, the quiet, the compassionate and the peaceful and which moves from preaching to (horrible term I know but I don’t have an alternative) sharing, and inviting in. Along the way I hope to find some fellow travellers.

There are risks here. One is that I lose all credibility and never work again. Which is pretty terrifying. I have hope, though (and some threads of evidence) that I am not doing anything so risky here. Instead, I think that I am putting some words to a zeitgeist which is already emerging in street design and in research. Even if the traditional work which relies on my logic, rationality and quantitative analysis skills dries up then I am trusting there will be something else which calls on a deeper understanding of shared humanity, compassion and creativity. I’m guessing that I am also adding some words to an ongoing redefinition of what it means to be a woman doing research. Brené Brown is a flag bearer here, but there are others too. Their stand allows women, and hopefully men too, to do research unashamedly whole. If all this sounds a bit too earnest then I promise it won’t be. After all, ‘whole’ means I get to blog about macaroons.

Ghosts of children and reality checks at road safety meeting

Ghosts of children and reality checks at road safety meeting


Some years ago I taught basic road engineering to a group of largely uninterested third year engineers. Attempting one morning to shake them out of their sleepy stupor I asked: “So, how many of you have lost someone in a road traffic crash?” The air chilled as about half of the class slowly raised their hands and fixed me with their now alert and pained eyes. How to respond to such a show of personal tragedy?
Today’s opinion pieces in The Cape Argus by Hector Eliot of the “Safely Home” road safety campaign and Sebastian van As of Red Cross hospital reminded me of this and sent me scrabbling for my notes from the recent Global Road Safety Partnership seminar around the subject of child road safety in Africa, held at the Southern Sun Hotel in August. The first morning of the seminar was awash with data:

  • Africa has 2% of the world vehicle fleet….and 16% of the world road fatalities (Dr Olive Kobusingye)
  • 17,000 were killed on South African roads in 2009. 2 x world average and 2.75 x UK average (Hector Elliot)
  • Over one weekend at Red Cross Hospital 20 children under the age of 12 were admitted with road traffic-related trauma (Dr Sebastian van As)

Few realise that road traffic incidents are the second largest cause of death amongst children worldwide, and the leading cause of death for teens. Young children in low and middle income countries are most at risk, and in Africa a child is at least twice as likely to die in a road traffic incident as a child in the US, and four times more likely than in high income Europe. (This is despite the much higher car ownership in the high income countries). For every child that dies there are about seven more who face severe injury. Of those who are affected the majority – about two thirds – are pedestrians.
The two groups disproportionately affected by road crashes, then, are children and the poor, which makes road safety both a poverty and an equity issue, as well as a personal tragedy. One delegate noted: “if you weren’t poor before the road traffic crash, you will be afterwards”, as death and injury places financial and emotional burdens on already stretched families. Numbers, especially numbers about tragedy, can numb. Some delegates attempted to put them into perspective. The annual estimated worldwide death from terrorism, said Red Cross Hospital trauma surgeon Sebastian van As, is 5,000; from armed conflict is 370,000 and yet from road traffic incidents in 1,400,000. Despite its extraordinary scale the mundane regularity of child death on roads has made it, for the most part, media-unworthy. Only incidents of high profile figures, such as the loss of Nelson Mandela’s great-grand-daughter Zenani on the eve of the World Cup bring the matter into brief spotlight.
The delegates became most alert when individuals recounted their personal experiences. Sebastian van As told of a typical weekend at Red Cross Hospital when he would see 20 children who had been involved in traffic incidents. Van As has the near impossible job of breaking life-changing news about road incidents to families. This surgeon, saddened by what he describes as the most profound – but largely silent – humanitarian disaster of our time has taken up arms in the road safety cause. His particular bugbear is the use of seatbelts. This is such a simple measure and yet one neglected by the majority of South African parents, who think that they can restrain a child on their laps during a crash. The reality is that a 10kg child becomes the equivalent of four rugby locks during impact and no parent, no matter how loving or desperate, can hold onto that. Children fly through windows like bags of rice and their flesh is shredded by glass en route.
In light of the weight of evidence about road injury and death the United Nations woke up to the need for change and announced 2011 to 2020 as the Decade of Action on road safety. The Cape Town seminar noted, though, that despite this UN road incidents remain stubbornly high, especially in Africa. To learn that the Decade of Action has so far yielded disappointing results was disappointing but there were also real shoots of hope over the two days. Striking were the multiple stories of corporate support for the ‘scholar patrols’ which safely marshal children across high-speed roads. The Road Safety 4 Youth work (an example of which is in Belhar) which uses the creativity of youth to question drunk-driving also impressed. The road safety campaign spearheaded by Ugandan youth to use their rightful feelings of anger for powerful good also inspired. Less remarkable were the reactions of the State. For the most part their responses to this Decade of Action have been modest.
Concluding the two days surgeon van As urged for something more. The young shoots of change, inspiring as they were, appeared vulnerable and dwarfed in the face of this gargantuan problem. “We need”, urged van As, “a Treatment Action Campaign for road safety. Something which can raise the profile of this issue, as the TAC did for HIV/AIDS.” The question of where this ’TAC’ would come from was left hanging, although van As argued for more co-operation and partnership. Morsli, a delegate from of Algeria told of women worldwide who are starting to embrace social media as a platform for bringing together disparate bereaved families, and their campaigns of anger and grief. Through this mutual support they are better able to marshall resources to protest, raise awareness, and lobby for change.
These inputs reminded me of Peter Norton’s book “Fighting Traffic” which describes in detail the early days of motoring in the US and the clashes of interests and power which accompanied it. He tells of grieving mothers and children who, in the early part of the last century, formed lobby groups against speeding. Streets had, after all, been safe domains for children up until the arrival of the motor car. In New York in 1922 a procession of ten thousand children protested on the streets for their friends who had been killed by accidents (mainly traffic). Two hundred mothers also wore white stars in remembrance of the dead from the previous year. In 1922 the city of St Louis unveiled a monument “In Memory of Child Life Sacrificed on the Altar of Haste and Recklessness” and cherubs around the base of the monument told of the innocence of lives lost. In 1919 in Detroit the Safety Council’s campaigners tolled bells throughout the city eight times on any day a life was lost in a traffic ‘accident’.
That loss and tragedy can be transfigured into a profound force for good was an insight which was largely missing from the seminar. As I left the glossy towers of the Southern Sun I reflected that the sparks needed to fire up the existing powder keg of good will and good work into a firestorm that no politician can ignore would more likely come from bereaved parents than safety professionals. Social networks (both digital and traditional) of the youth and women may have the potential to link the scattered losses of grief and to create more powerful forces for change.
Another force for change are the individual realisations that ‘traffic accidents’ are, paradoxically, not accidental. An ‘accident’ implies that there is nothing which can be done to stop them but that’s far from the truth. There is much that can be done. One key is to slow down when driving, especially in areas where children roam. There is no escape from the reality that speed kills, and every country in the world which has succeeded in reducing road deaths has a culture of mindful, slower driving. The most immediate change for individuals, though, is to strap in your precious cargos of children. Whether they are in the front or the back of the car, without seatbelts you hold a gun to their heads every time you drive.

“Welcome to Cape Town! The first thing you need to know? It’s treacherous to cross the roads…”

“Welcome to Cape Town! The first thing you need to know? It’s treacherous to cross the roads…”

Image from

“In Cape Town”, she said, “the green men are ‘shy’ and drivers don’t care about pedestrians. Please be careful. I don’t want to lose any of you along the way!” So started the “Footsteps to Freedom” tour by Karen Goslett, our tour guide of over 20 years experience. As a long-time lover of the Central City it was a shock to hear these opening words. Yet, despite wishing it were different I came to see that Karen had good reason to headline her tour with a warning, rather than with a long list of Cape Town credits. For sure Central Cape Town has so much going for it: an energetic creative and arts scene; dynamic places to buy and hang-out; street life as vibrant as anywhere in South Africa. It was, though, difficult to focus on these on as I re-experienced – with visitor’s eyes – that sense of treachery and lack of care which greets us all as we work our way around Cape Town Central City. At street corners Karen urged us to wait patiently (sometimes very patiently) for the green man to appear and then like a fretful mother hen she carefully nudged us across, scolding the inevitable turning driver who tried to mow us down. We walked single file down quiet side streets, dodging the one or two cars parked there and the minefield of street furniture in the footways. We ran across Wale Street, nervously eying the fast-moving traffic.

Through my intermittent work with the City transport officials I know that the built environment of the Central City is steeped in history, difficult and expensive to change. Nevertheless the status quo of signal settings; on-street parking and design speeds for major inner city roads is seriously out of step with best practice. In the social democracies of Europe and increasingly in  North America streets and roads are being designed and retrofitted to be much safer and to treat people with more respect. The quantitative outcome of this is lower road fatalities and injuries.

As I listened to Karen talking about our apartheid history I wondered again about the relationship between politics and street design, and whether it was an accident that South African streets treat those on foot with such disdain. Streets are clearly not ‘just’ a matter of moving people from A to B. They are also more than ‘just’ ‘places’ and ‘spaces’. Streets are an integral part of our experience of our City, and so of how we experience our lives, and our sense of our-selves. No-one, whether visitor or resident, can escape experiencing a lack of care on the streets of Cape Town. What does that say about our compassion for others and the role of streets in expressing it?

Image from
Data sources for road death and injury in the Cape

Data sources for road death and injury in the Cape

A query came in yesterday on data sources. As far as I know, this is what’s available for the Western Cape:

The National Government Arrive Alive website has plenty of information, including data breakdowns by province in some cases, but the reporting lacks consistency. The Western Cape Province “Safely Home” Campaign has a live fatality counter and citizen reporting but no aggregate reports for the Western Cape. In theory the City of Cape Town produces an Annual Report on road incidents. In practice the reporting has been “patchy”. The latest Annual Report available on the website is for 2005. Last year, as part of a project for the Cape Town Partnership we managed to access data from the City of Cape Town up to 2011, but this kind of data is not (as far as I am aware) systematically summarised or published anywhere. The data we analysed showed that on average one pedestrian, and two drivers or passengers, will require hospitalisation each week due to a serious traffic incident in the central city of Cape Town. A further 17 will receive slight injuries each week. Data on fatal incidents suggests at least one traffic death per month in the central city. Under-resourced police and traffic services are a block to accurate location, and severity data for traffic crashes.

Perhaps one reason for the sorry state of official reporting at all levels is that the actual data is flawed. Comparing the mortuary data on road traffic death with the police reported data reveals discrepancies, but even that is difficult given the paucity of comparable databases. Up until 2010 The National Injury Mortality Surveillance System gave detail on all fatalities in South Africa. More recent reports focus on Mpumalanga and Gauteng only. Locally we found discrepancies between traffic incidents reported by the Police Service and those recorded by the Pathology Services for central Cape Town.

Some very detailed data on cause of injury is available from the Red Cross Children’s hospital trauma statistics. Finally, the recent Road Safety Seminar hosted by the Global Road Safety Partnership in Cape Town profiled work by many experts and officials who seem to have access to data not in the public domain. The presentations are not online, but they may be persuaded?

I find this lack of consistent and reliable data about loss of precious lives terribly depressing. If, as a society, we measure what matters then clearly those killed on roads don’t matter that much.




“Motorized” normal?

“Motorized” normal?

Call me crass for making the point but I can’t read “Non Motorized” without thinking “Non White” and “Non European”. Then I’m left wondering what the consequences are of South Africans adopting the term “NMT” (Non Motorized Transport)? This is especially pressing given the ongoing discussions around the long overdue National Guidelines for “NMT” (up for discussion tomorrow in Cape Town), which will concrete the term even further into the South African psyche.

The argument is familiar to the social and political scientists. “Non Motorized”, like “Non European”, makes one category normal and the other abnormal. With being normal and abnormal come the baggage of acceptability (or not), being the centre of attention (or not) and (more practically) institutional resources (or not). Are we comfortable to make motorized movement normality, and other ways of moving about the abnormal “non”?

The frequent response to criticisms of this kind are to point out the lack of a suitable vocabulary for alternatives. But perhaps there’s a good reason for that misfit between current terminology and South African reality. The current vocabulary, like the practices, have been largely adopted from elsewhere. “Non Motorized Transport” is a peculiarly North American term not widely used in less auto focused Europe. There the talk is more of “walking and cycling”. “Active transport” has been adopted by those with an anti-obesity agenda for transport, while “slow modes” works well for the the slow food and slow life movements. “Accessible transport”, meanwhile, carries the longings of those frustrated by car culture.

None of these, though, capture the richness of things-which-move-without-petrol-motors-in-South-Africa and for good reason. Informal traders needing to navigate streets are barely unheard of in Boston. Children walking to school en masse along rural highways are not a widespread feature of Dutch life. Needing to navigate the sprawling Apartheid city without an income does not have the same pressing urgency in New York. The places which have birthed and deeply informed our vocabulary and our ways of designing and planning the South African city do not share our cultures.

South Africans are adept at inventing vocabulary for uniquely South African matters. South-African-things-that-move-under-their-own-steam (rather than petrol or coal energy) deserve something more ambitiously home-grown than the regressive and imported label “Non”.

“Too much information” Mothering liftclubs

“Too much information” Mothering liftclubs

The problem is that when it comes to lift clubs for children and teenagers, I have too much information. Information which, once seen, cannot be forgotten. It has changed the way I think about my teens, their schools and teachers, their extra murals and their social lives. Most of my otherwise intelligent and well-read circle of friends have no idea about this. The information? It relates to seemingly mundane topics of traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Given that many are passionately interested in traffic congestion and only luke warm about carbon then let’s start there.
The traffic in the mornings, we know, is always hell. But it’s particularly hellish during school terms and when universities are in session. The good reason for that is the traffic in the morning is 30-40% commuter and 30-40% school/ college related. As individuals, we despair, believing that we can do little to dent it. Interestingly, though, that’s not how traffic works. In fact, in congested cities where traffic is generally in some sort of unstable equilibrium, little changes to traffic composition can have disproportionally large impacts. Four children being driven to school with mom in four separate cars for example, could, if lift-clubbed in, reduce space used by vehicles by 40m2. That freed up space means, in simple terms, less congestion. In practice, of course, it’s a bit more complicated, but the principle that the status quo can be challenged remains.
Lift-clubs get really compelling, though, if we look at global warming. This is all too often is imagined as a Big Industry problem or else something we can alleviate at home through putting on warm clothes, fitting low energy lights, recycling and buying local. I don’t knock these for a minute, but we also need to look at lifestyles much more carefully if we’re going to really dent energy use and emissions. The data shows that transporting people and stuff accounts for roughly half of all the energy used in cities in South Africa. We tend not to notice it. But it’s significant.
So where is all that energy going? Detailed work done in Nelson Mandela Municipality backed up our own findings in Central Cape Town. Many people use very little resource energy at all to move about either because they walk or cycle, travel very short distances, or use energy efficient public transport. In fact 80% of the transport energy used in cities is by 20% of the population. Who are those 20%? Well, the uncomfortable reality is that I’m one of them – living in a two-car owning household with an upper-middle class lifestyle. The detailed data we have is a bit thin but we can conservatively estimate that 5-10% of all urban energy used is related to the transport of upper-middle class and wealthy children and teenagers.

Source: Cape Town Partnership
Source: Cape Town Partnership

Two closing thoughts, then. One is that it makes little sense to teach affluent children about resource constraints and global warming at school and to continue ferrying them to hockey on their own with mom. Secondly, here is a rare instance where, with a little commitment individuals can really make a significant impact. It takes organisation and community-mindedness, but parents have that already and (bonus) the big beneficiaries in all of this are the children.

On “co-benefits” and gazing

On “co-benefits” and gazing

So I’m sitting here thinking: how do I make an interesting “hook” out of the word: “co-benefits”? Working in transport planning and road engineering I have this problem a lot. It’s a conversation killer at dinner parties. But when I dig deeper with the munchers at my side and the connections between roads and time and buses and people and walking and connecting become clearer then they get excited. And so do I.

So, “co-benefits”. I’ve learnt recently, that the people working in climate change mitigation use this word a lot. It captures the idea that the gloomy prospect of climate change isn’t making enough difference to how decision makers think. And so the mitigation people are looking for these “co-benefits” – for ways of linking things that work for climate change with things that work for other reasons. Solar water heaters are a (sort of) good example. They save energy AND they save money. Co-benefits!

Trouble is, to buy a solar water geyser you need money up front. Many people are happy to pay for stuff they really crave like clothes and TVs and cars using debt but they don’t want to pay for a solar water geyser using debt. It’s a grudge purchase. So I was musing all of this as I was bumping along on the Jammie Shuttle bus up to campus. One part of my brain was wondering how anyone could persuade people with a choice to choose a bus over a car when the ride is so darned uncomfortable and the other part of my brain was thinking about co-benefits.

Then I spotted the most beautiful thing in my side vision: a young boy bowling a cricket ball. I’m not a cricket fan…but his energy and fluidity and joy just caught me and I turned and stared. Then I picked up my phone and starting writing this and thought to myself. “Yes, there it is, a subtle, profound co-benefit of riding the bus today rather than the car”. The simple enjoyment of a boy playing cricket and my having the time to turn and gaze. Co-benefit. Made my day.

Low carbon transport part 3: allocate public road space democratically

Low carbon transport part 3: allocate public road space democratically

N2 Bus lane

Here’s a picture of a democracy of space in action.

It’s a picture of what happens when public space on roads is democratically allocated on a same-space-per-person basis. The fifteen people in the minibus taxi have fifteen vehicle lengths of space allocated to them in the bus lane. These fifteen people are all inside the taxi and so the bus lane is free and the taxi can move speedily on. The people in the cars have the same amount of space per person as the taxi travellers. However, most of it is taken up by car carcases with a lot of fresh air inside of them, and so the car drivers are stuck in congestion.

Taxi use is really space (and energy) efficient. Bus lanes are one relatively simple way that public authorities can reward that space and energy efficiency. It’s such a no-brainer that you would imagine bus lanes all over the city, speeding whatever public transport vehicles we have on their way. And in lots of cities that is what has happened or is happening. The passengers are happy but also, crucially, the operators are also happy because faster trips means quicker turn around which means more profitable services. It also means more frequent services…more customers…and on and on in a virtuous circle.

It takes political and public official courage though, to commit to bus lanes even if it means taking space away from private vehicles. And it requires us to think of “roads” differently. Instead of links which are mainly about the easy movement of privately owned vehicles, can we rethink “roads” as public spaces, common spaces, with shared ownership, serving each of us fairly, regardless of what we earn or own?









Low carbon transport part 2: The car is not the devil. Empty space in them is.

Low carbon transport part 2: The car is not the devil. Empty space in them is.

When I talk about the sustainable transport/low carbon transport thing I often get accused of having “car hatred” going on. It seems that no matter who the audience there is always a Jeremy Clarkson there accusing me of lack of reason, idealism (since when did that become a swear word?) or just plain spoiling-the-party. There is a grain of truth in the accusations. It’s true that I don’t get the speed fetish thing. I also don’t really get the car-as-sex-object; car-as-status symbol thing either. But just because I don’t get the emotional attachment which many have to their cars and all that they stand for, it does not mean I have a blanket opposition to them.

In the last post I wrote of the 70% of transport energy consumed by the cars making 25% of trips. The simple reason for this imbalance is that cars are a highly inefficient way of moving people around. Looking at it in basic terms we regularly energise about one ton of metal with petrol in order to move an 80kg human around. Mad! Even though buses and trains are bulky and lumbering the numbers of people who can squish into them mean that they are super energy efficient per trip. The key to really understanding energy efficiency in transport is to wrap your head around the difference that occupancy makes.

Source: Cape Town Partnership
Source: Cape Town Partnership

This graphic shows the intuitively obvious. Quadruple the people being carried and quarter the energy use and associated emissions. Which is just one reason why liftclubs and technologies which encourage shared use are worth encouraging.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is that in the short term in South Africa (thanks largely to the nature of our segregated, sprawling cities) cars could be an important tools in carbon reduction. Full cars can be almost as energy efficient as the most energy efficient public transport mode – the minibus taxi. This is because a car-pooled private car will tend to travel one way full, park, and then return home full again. By contrast a minibus taxi (like all public transport in South Africa) may well travel full in one direction during the commuter peaks and then be almost empty on the return journey. The distorted land patterns in South Africa which keep employment far away from residences, with very little mixed uses of activities inbetween is terrible for efficient public transport use. This separation of activity makes for imbalanced flows of people and inefficient empty public transport vehicles. A mix of activities in a city means that the public transport system can be better used…saving money on the “return” legs.

So even when I am wearing my most strident energy efficient hat I’m not a car-hater, but I am an empty seat hater.





Low carbon transport part 1: focus on affluent lifestyles

Low carbon transport part 1: focus on affluent lifestyles

Here’s the crux of a major problem facing the South African transport sector. Ethics demands that we focus on alleviating poverty and creating jobs, the politics of voting demand that we address the  desires of the middle class and the climate change agenda calls for a dogged focus on the lifestyles of the affluent.

In their inspired work in metropolitan Nelson Mandela Bay Christo Venter and Semira Mohammed demonstrated why a focus on the affluent is so key. They clearly demonstrated the skewed use of transport energy use in South Africa. They showed (in a nutshell) that “car users, although they make only 25% of trips, contribute 70% of the passenger transport energy consumption“. It’s (almost) one of the classic 80:20 situations where a small group has a dramatically disproportionate impact.

Income and modeThe graph to the left drawing on National Household Travel Survey data tells a similar story. Minibus taxis dominate transport use in the metros for the three lowest income quintiles. Train, bus and car use in this group is modest. The transport use of the most affluent 20% is dramatically different and  car use dominates. The implications for climate policy are clear. The poorest and middle income groups already exhibit the most sustainable transport behaviour possible. Measures for lowering carbon in the transport sector should not focus there.

Vasconcellos argues that to talk of sustainability is not helpful in our Southern context. Vasconcellos asks: “We should be provide sustainability for whom?” and he opens up the uncomfortable reality that transport planners focused on carbon would ideally keep the basic movement characteristics of the poorest: low private vehicle use, high use of walking and public transport.

I advocate a value-based focus to transport planning, to replace our current obsession with modes. (1) Poverty-alleviation focused transport planners intent on improving the current services to the poorest. (2) Carbon-focused transport planners intent on shifting lifestyle patterns amongst the affuent. The middle ground, the income group where car ownshership is possible, but not yet familiar and where public transport use is part of family life and history is the key “battleground” for the carbon-focused and transport planners. That is where rapid growth in energy use could happen and that is where our future will be won or lost.


Wealth-poverty photo –


Low carbon passenger transport – keeping it simple

peta wolpe Peta Wolpe of Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA) challenged me some years ago in her characteristically incisive and insightful way on a presentation conclusion that: “reducing energy use in the urban transport sector is difficult and…complex.” The presentation was all well and good, she argued, but where does it leave us? What should SEA advise government to do in a very practical sense?

This week I’m back with SEA at a similar presentation event and Peta’s question is still haunting me. So this time I’m keeping the conclusions simple. My prescription for lowering carbon emissions from the passenger sector is a seven part manifesto for change:

focus policy attention on affluent lifestyles

increase vehicle occupancies through pricing

allocate public road space to public transport

attend seriously to the safety of “own steam” transport (walking and cycling mainly)

increase urban densities in targeted areas

challenge car culture as inevitable

support civil society movements in these areas

This is a knotty problem. You will notice that  “investing in public transport” isn’t on the list. That’s because I’m not yet convinced that investing in public transport without other conditions serves the lowering carbon agenda cost effectively. Public transport investment will serve other agendas…improving quality, providing access and choice…but  is it the best way to reduce carbon?

In the next weeks I’m going to expand on these one by one.

Being human on Cape Town’s Open Streets

Being human on Cape Town’s Open Streets


Towards the end of Sunday’s Bree Open Streets Day I finally took some time to sit with a cup of tea and enjoy the street. As a survey volunteer I had spent most of the day interviewing. The people I spoke to had talked about the “the cool vibe”, how great it was “to just hang out”, the “freedom” (especially for kids). One even said it was chilled, so “serene”. I looked around and slowed a little. It was, as they had said, easy and relaxed. Ambling walkers. Meandering cyclists. Friends and family meeting, hugging and chatting. Skateboarders lazily flipping boards.

There were plenty of activities around attracting interest and small crowds. There were some people intent on getting exercise and the businesses were open. What most struck me most, though, was how low key it all was. We think of “events” as exhilarating and adrenalin-producing. By that measure this “event” was a non-event of sorts. There was nothing too dramatic to see. No big “wow” to post on social media, and yet everyone I spoke to loved it. The crowd who came mostly enjoying simply watching each other. We were enjoying the experience of being stripped bare of cars and the push to buy, buy, buy. We were just a bunch of human beings being human together. No big deal.

Except that in Cape Town an Open Street like this IS a big deal because there are so few places where people can go and simply be with each other. The genuinely public spaces we have – safe places that welcome all and that don’t require tickets or big budgets – are few. None of these spaces allow for safe and respectful movement, the lounging AND the creative expression that Open Streets provides a platform for.

Great cities of the world all celebrate and provide for this “Open Streets” relaxed way of being together with plazas, piazzas, or pedestrianised high streets. They make space for people to enjoy being with and watching each other. Our history hasn’t celebrated our peoples and so perhaps not surprisingly our city hasn’t created spaces for this kind of experience. We have all missed out. After all, where better in the world to people-watch than Cape Town with its eclectic, flamboyant, creative, fun and energetic mix of people? Open Streets really seems to answer a suppressed yearning in Capetownians. Here, at the tip end of Africa, there’s a lot people who simply want the chance to hang out with each other on a street closed to traffic.

Do roads have politics?

Do roads have politics?

This question – do roads have politics – from Langdon Winner in 1980 has been beguiling me for a (long) time. Winner asked it while describing 1920s ‘parkway’ access routes from New York City to the beaches of Long Island. The routes provided one of the few means for New Yorkers to leave the crowded city and to experience leisure in the great outdoors. Intriguingly (so the story goes) the bridges over the parkways were low enough to stop buses (mainly used by poorer African-Americans), but suitable for rich car owners to pass under. By stopping the buses the bridges were acting out their politics of race, and privileging some (car owners) over other (bus users). Almost one hundred years on the original politics which guided the New York parkway bridges are now largely forgotten, argued Winner, and yet in some way these bridges remain silently controlling.

In a similar vein Ralf Brand has written about the rumours that footpaths in Belfast were constructed to full vehicle-weight specification, to allow armoured vehicles to travel on them. Having worked in Belfast, I saw at first hand how street design and Northern Irish politics  were linked. Discussions around whether to install a roundabout/circle or a set of signals/robots at a new junction in Belfast in 1991 centred more on whether hit-and-run gunmen would be able to escape, than on the ability of the intersection to cope with peak hour traffic.

More recently and closer to home, Don Pinnock has written about the clustered, inward looking apartheid-era housing developments which included compulsory ‘buffer strips’ adjoining the roads between townships. These strips, 200-300 yards wide, provided sufficient space for tanks to turn in and were “known in planning circles as ‘machine gun belts’” (Pinnock, 2008). The tanks have long gone but the strips remain in our city – brutally separating the communities still living alongside them.

So – do roads have politics? And if so what are they? Perhaps the politics at play on most streets are more subtle and more complex than the examples described by Winner, Brand and Pinnock but – I suggest – they are still immensely powerful.