Future Joburg (1)

by Tariq Toffa of URB.im

Travel in South Africa, and Southern Africa in general, is highly skewed by economic means. It is dominated by walking (often great distances on poor quality footpaths) and by public transport, primarily among the poor. In Johannesburg, the situation is exacerbated by the marginalisation created by historic spatial planning and the sprawling, low-density nature of the city. According to the City of Johannesburg’s Department of Transport, urbanisation and urban poverty require not only urban transport solutions but also low-cost modes of travel such as cycling. This strategy, known as “Non-Motorised Transport” or NMT, over recent years has gradually become a priority area at National, Provincial and Local Government levels, resulting in the City of Johannesburg’s Framework for NMT in 2009.

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NMT, specifically cycling, is envisioned to support and integrate with other transport nodes, and projects such as the Bus Rapid Transit System and Gautrain stations, allowing individuals in outlying areas to cycle to the nearest public transport node. In practical terms, NMT strategies deal with pedestrian walkways and cycling routes, and their related streetscapes of lighting, paving, street furniture, landscaping, camera surveillance, and traffic calming measures. Following international precedents, Public Bicycle Systems will also be introduced, where the public can hire bicycles from one fixed-point station and return them at another.

The benefits of NMT include increased road safety and security, reduced travelling time and distance, and safer environments for the majority of learners who walk to and from educational institutions. Initial sites were identified as the highest priority based on NMT primary target areas, namely transport stations and improved access to them, particularly for marginalised areas. These sites are Soweto in the south (where two NMT projects have already been completed) (fig. 1), the inner city, and an Alexandra – Sandton – Linbro Park network in the north.

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One of the challenges for NMT is that of transforming perceptions, as commuter cycling is not part of the general transportation culture of Johannesburg, and is either associated only with recreation or especially with poverty, or viewed as unpleasant or dangerous.

There are also other challenges and critiques of the NMT approach which are methodological, in its extending of the transport engineering approaches of city-scale transport projects down to the pedestrian and architectural scales of neighbourhoods, which it cannot meaningfully engage. The role assigned to the design and spatial-focused disciplines in the process to implementation level only is also highly prescriptive of this expertise. This all has implications particularly for the poor. Though the NMT Framework acknowledges that “it is likely that informal businesses will benefit from an increase in passing trade on foot and bicycle,” besides employment directly related to NMT (construction, security, and bicycle repairs), no provision whatsoever on a policy level has been made toward catalysing local economic opportunity (fig. 2). Similarly, waste reclaimers (“trolley pushers”) who collect and sell reclaimed materials with their recycling trolleys from all over the city, are another marginalised group identified by the NMT Framework, but whose livelihoods will be little transformed by it (fig. 3).

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Overall, Johannesburg’s NMT is a positive and much needed multi-modal initiative and the city will be the better for it. It is not without many lost opportunities, however, which illustrate the need for more multidisciplinary approaches earlier in the conceptual and policy-shaping stages of the process. Ultimately, the resulting omissions will be felt mostly by those who could have benefited from it the most.

Fig. 1: Cycling / pedestrian infrastructure around Thokoza Park BRT Station, Soweto — an NMT site. Fig. 2: Home-based businesses in Soweto. Fig. 3: “Trolley pushers.” All photos by author.

This article originally appeared on URB.im on 11 April 2013.