Case Study 2: Opening Cape Town streets for a low carbon future
Unit for Environmental Ethics, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Centre for Transport Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Cape Town’s apartheid spatial form combined with its weak and under resourced
public transport system has resulted in a resource inefficient city where many
people rely on carbon-intensive private vehicles, or taxis for mobility (Wilkinson,
2000; Statistics South Africa, 2014a) More than half of the energy used in the Cape
Town metro area is consumed by the transport sector (City of Cape Town, 2015). At a
macro level, the city authorities and partners have drawn up strategies including the
Comprehensive Integrated Transport Plan (Transport for Cape Town, 2014) and the
Low Carbon Central City Strategy (Cape Town Partnership, 2014) to encourage ‘own-
steam’ transport (e.g. walking, cycling), public transport and smarter private vehicle
use (e.g. car-pooling). However, despite these policy interventions the carbon
footprint of transport continues to grow (City of Cape Town, 2015).
While it is true that the current transport system, with its prioritisation of private
vehicles and lack of adequate public transport, has traditionally favoured the afflu-
ent, it is not clear whether increasing the financial resources allocated to public
transport will be sufficient to encourage a shift to low carbon alternatives. This case
study addresses a civil society movement called Open Streets through the lens of
transition theory. It suggests that this movement is a niche development in which a
transformation of the way people and places are valued could occur. This niche has
the potential to significantly alter the regime of the urban transport system in Cape
Town and assist in shifting the city towards a low carbon urban mobility future.
84 Low Carbon Mobility Transitions: People and Place
The co-evolution of urban transport systems
Transportation systems are intricate socio-technical systems (Rees et al., 2016) that
are difficult to change because they often involve heavy infrastructure costs and
profound changes to people’s behaviour patterns (Geels, 2012). Major shifts need to
happen within civil society, among firms, politicians and policy makers. This process
is co-evolutionary and can take decades to happen. This case study highlights two
overlooked factors in co-evolution: ‘conscientisation’ about these often taken-for-
granted systems; and experiences of streets outside of the mundane every day.
In Cape Town, like many South African cities, the issue of place-making is compli-
cated. The city’s apartheid patterns of settlement disadvantaged Black South Afri-
cans by placing them on the outskirts of cities and forcing them to spend high pro-
portions of their low wages on public transport to get to work in the city centre
(Cape Town Partnership, 2014). Now, despite the democratic political situation, the
outskirts of Cape Town remain places where affordable housing is available and the
central city is home to a large proportion of the jobs. This means the underprivileged
remain reliant on the city’s substandard public transport system.
The racial segregation of the past created a fearful society (Lemanski, 2004). Many
White South Africans lived behind high walls and their use of public street space was
very limited. By contrast Black and Coloured South Africans used streets for access
and as playgrounds (Coetzer, 2004), in part because of limited access to amenities.
Now, more than 20 years after the arrival of democracy, as South Africa seeks to tran-
sition to a lower carbon future with fewer cars and more community interaction, the
privileged are still hesitant to switch to lower carbon modes of transit that require
a great utilisation of what they have traditionally considered unsafe public open
spaces and and are less convenient in terms of flexibility (Statistics South Africa,
2014b). Moreover, the previously disadvantaged, often forced to use public trans-
port, still see the private car as the preferred mode of transportation.
South Africa’s National Department of Transport, in an attempt to address the inef-
ficiency of travel in the country’s cities and motivated in part by the hosting of the
2010 Football World Cup (ITDP, 2008; Boulle & Van Ryneveld, 2015), began a bus
rapid transport (BRT) system in the country’s five metropolitan areas and 10 smaller
cities. This programme, which is called the MyCiti bus in Cape Town, is ambitious.
The city plans to expand it so that most residents are within 500 metres of a trunk
(BRT/rail) or bus feeder route, allowing for even those on the periphery of the city to
be able to reach their destinations within an hour (Boulle & Van Ryneveld, 2015; City
of Cape Town, 2014). However, despite these good intentions, the system has strug-
gled to be financially viable (Lewis, 2015) and widespread public transport uptake
by the higher income segment of the Cape Town population has been limited (Don-
Case Study 2: Opening Cape Town Streets for a Low Carbon Future 85
To address access, and other related ‘street’ concerns, the Open Streets movement
was initiated in Cape Town 2012. It was formed by a diverse group of actors, ranging
from those interested in climate change and low carbon forms of travel to others
focused on civil rights and the allocation of urban space, social cohesion, creative
arts, job creation, security, sports and recreation. All believed in the power of street
design and street use to contribute to these diverse policy agendas1
. A decision was
taken early on to embrace the wide ranging, and often eclectic possibilities for street
development and to find ways to work across the various interests in a productive
way. In this way, Open Streets aimed from the beginning to break down the silos
commonplace in government thinking about urban development.
We argue that Open Streets provides an example of a niche development that could
assist in addressing the social transformation needed to assist South African travel-
lers to move to lower carbon forms of mobility in Cape Town, and possibly elsewhere
in South Africa.
Transition theory is an attempt to explain how sustainability innovations occur in
large systems (Hodson & Marvin, 2010; Horisch, 2015). It does this with the help of
multi-level perspective that consists niches, regimes and landscapes (Geels, 2002).
A regime is the prevailing socio-technical system that is characterised by a specific
logic because technologies are inevitably linked to a variety of interests including
political, business, cultural and consumer interests. Occasionally, cracks occur in a
regime as a result of external long-term macro-level tensions at the landscape level
(i.e. societal values, political ideologies or macro-economic patterns) and then new
Niche developments are the protected spaces within regimes that support emerg-
ing innovations and alternative practices. These niches allow learning processes that
enable communities to overcome both technical and social problems in one regime,
to transition to another regime (Geels, 2012). They create space for the articulation of
the visions and expectations of people as well as facilitate social networking oppor-
tunities. If these innovations grow in support and attract funding and they coincide
with the emergence of gaps in the regime (influenced by the macro landscape level)
then they break through the existing practices of the current regime and create new
and alternative practices. It is with this transition theory lens that we examine the
impact of the Open Streets movement in Cape Town.
During the first six months of Open Streets, attention was focused on its manifesto,
which set out to promote shared places in Cape Town that ‘embody respect for all and
help bridge the social and spatial divides of our city’. The manifesto promoted a vision
for streets that should ‘enable safer and more cohesive communities; provide platforms
for creative expression of local cultures and values; be places for recreation and social
1 One of the paper’s authors was a co-founder and has been able to observe the development of the
movement at close hand.
86 Low Carbon Mobility Transitions: People and Place
interaction; contribute to job creation and local economic activity and provide choice
how people move around the city’ (Open Streets website, 2015a, np).
Over the lifespan of the project, the interests represented have changed. Early on,
it was necessary first to engage the public and to place ‘streets’ on the agenda as
a conversation piece. before Open Streets could be used as a platform for change.
Media interest and the development of a cohort who were interested to engage fur-
ther was seen as essential. As funding was not secured, the group made intense use
of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook to gain attention and interest. One
member wrote a regular newspaper column and the group were proactive in writing
and publishing opinion pieces.
To date, the flagship programme used to raise awareness about the Open Streets
manifesto and movement has been a series of Open Streets Days. The first of these
took place in Observatory, an eclectic suburban area about 5km from central Cape
Town which has a strong creative community. The Open Streets organisation gener-
ated local buy-in through a series of public meetings and on-the-ground, conven-
tional and social media networking over two months (April-May 2013). Open Streets
then facilitated the day by closing the road to traffic and ensuring the soft and hard
infrastructure necessary was in place for about five hours initially on a Sunday and
subsequently on a Saturday. The Observatory Improvement District, a strong and
enthusiastic local area partner, ensured local support and engagement. The setting
brought an estimated 5000 participants, performers, activists and enthusiasts to the
first Open Streets days and generated positive media interest from the outset.
Subsequent surveys of more than 100 participants at the Open Streets Days con-
ducted by Open Streets volunteers revealed that citizens enjoyed the diversity of
the crowds who came to Open Streets days and although this has varied over the
eight Open Streets Days (in Observatory, Langa, central Cape Town and Bellville) it
seems that this somewhat taken-for-granted quality of Open Streets Days is seen as
a powerful positive, in a political context currently of high awareness of unresolved
racial division and inequity. Survey participants also remarked on a sense of freedom
(especially for children) which Open Streets Days provide, and a safe, relaxed ‘vibe’.
By late 2015, the Open Streets movement had attracted sufficient public interest that
it began being seen as a possible platform for change agendas. The Western Cape
Provincial Government tested a concept (‘Streetiquette’) for using street theatre to
raise awareness about pedestrian street safety (one of the manifesto aims) with the
help of Open Streets (Western Cape Government website, 2015). The organisation
has also recently received funding from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Ned-
bank Green Trust for the development of more Open Streets Days with an associated
low carbon transport focus. This will mean developing a programme for rail, bus,
mini-bus taxi and bike access to Open Streets days, and a series of campaigns and
research in low carbon transport.
Case Study 2: Opening Cape Town Streets for a Low Carbon Future 87
There are many factors that influence whether niche innovations such as the Open
Streets programme in Cape Town are able to become mainstream, and challenge
the hegemony of the dominant regime. One such factor is timing. If tensions within
existing transport regimes are too small and the current regime is able to handle
the pressure within the system for decades, then insufficient windows of oppor-
tunity open up for niche innovations to grow (Geels, 2012). However, it is perhaps
the systemic pressures on South Africa’s transport systems which will compel the
uptake of innovative solutions: gridlocks in the city centre and on major arterials;
reaction against the on-going high loss of life on roads and associated costs and the
increasing and stubborn contribution of the transport sector to carbon emissions.
One could also argue that the worldwide shift at a ‘landscape level’ towards a new
sustainability paradigm also stands in the Open Streets programme’s favour for gain-
The following quotes on the Open Streets website (2015b) posted on 11 May 2015,
are an indication of the diversity of interest groups that it appeals to:
‘Open Streets is an opportunity to see what the city might be like if priority was
placed on people – skaters, cyclists, pedestrians and families – instead of cars’
(Marco Morgan, National Skate Collective)
‘The City is really excited to be part of [Open Streets], to be supporting this. By
removing cars I think we really do make a statement about sustainability and
liveability and that’s what this City and this government is about.’ (Brett Herron,
Mayco Member for Transport, Roads and Stormwater)
‘Streets matter, they do not only connect us with each other they also connect us
to ourselves… The phrase ‘I grew up in that street’, says so much. Open Streets
have connected Lower Main Road in Obs, Bree Street in the City and Bunga
Avenue in Langa by simply allowing ordinary people to lay claim to these streets
albeit for a short while. May this brave little initiative grow from strength to
strength and may we open our hearts and minds to rediscover the importance
of the streets we walk every day!’ (Nico McLachlan, MyCiti and N2 Express
As the above quotes indicate, the problems Open Streets face going forward are
not ones of popularity. Instead the growth of Open Streets faces a series of organi-
sational, logistical, regulatory and funding barriers. It is not clear, for example, where
Open Streets, and similar initiatives fit within current governance structures, even
those that are focused on transforming the city to a low carbon future. This begs
questions therefore about how such cross-disciplinary initiatives can be funded and
supported into the future. The apparently simple act of closing a road to traffic has
proven to be expensive due to event regulations in place to offset perceived risks.
These regulations require traffic and security officers, advanced and same-day sig-
nage, toilets and cleaning, the transport of barriers and cones, and public liability
insurance. These posts mean that the roll out of Open Streets at scale is not currently
88 Low Carbon Mobility Transitions: People and Place
Despite the currently prohibitive costs of Open Streets Days, the organisation has a
mandate from the City to explore ways of growing the Open Streets Day network in a
financially sustainable manner. Now that Open Streets has a higher profile, and with
funding from WWF Nedbank Green Trust, Open Streets will be focusing on three key
areas over the next three years:
1 Highlighting concerns of street design and use, transport and roads within
the public realm and media through targeted campaigns. The management
team consider this essential to addressing and reversing existing private
vehicle ownership and use aspirations.
2 Giving all people, but in the case of low carbon work especially the affluent
car driving South Africans, a different outside-the-car experience of the
street and the city and so to raise awareness and facilitate engagement in
alternative visions of the city.
3 Allowing children, whose parents are often justifiably fearful of the street,
to experience a different city. Inspiring them is one key to Cape Town’s
immediate low carbon prospects, and to South Africa’s long term future.
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