The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, described as “one of the most traumatic events in Cape Town’s history” heightened prejudices about death and congested cities. For almost a week during the epidemic burials rose from an average of 10 to 250 per day. Dead bodies were left lying on the pavement for want of help.
An editorial in 1918 in the South African “Architect and Builder” magazine clearly equated the devastating flu epidemic with city overcrowding and congestion. In the absence of medical consensus about the causes of the flu, there was insistence that flu must be due to environmental causes. “Congestion” was framed as bad for cities, and as something which could lead to death.
In the late 1930s the famous architect Le Corbusier cemented the idea of congested cities as repugnant. He appropriated the metaphor of the city-as-a-body and city planning as surgery. This idea became widespread.
UCT civil engineering academic, Snape, remarked: “Streets are termed traffic arteries which are as vital to the body civic as natural arteries to the human body”. Solomon Morris, who was City Engineer during the planning and construction of many of Cape Town’s freeways made frequent use of the body and artery metaphors, describing traffic congestion (with a nod to the heart surgery Cape Town was famous for) as “civic arteriosclerosis”.
As a society we are easily seduced by removing the evil of “congestion” and replacing it with free-flowing movement, but this is a dangerous seduction. It is one which decades of research unequivocally tells us is likely to cause, at best, a costly morning-after headache for the City purse-holders or, at worst, destruction of the transport system as a whole.