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

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“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?

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