I ride my bicycle to most places and since getting rid of my car last year, I use public transport on a regular basis. As one of the very fortunate Cape Town residents; however, I have the luxury of only taking trains on weekends or on off-peak hours. Yesterday, after being shoved around in a train on peak hour amongst children screaming, people pushing and generally chaos all around; I was reminded why public transport does hold the key to equity and economic justice. Getting it right is so crucial, it is surprising we are not seeing people on the street demanding better service.
The pain of my fractured collar bone and the anxiety of drowning in a sea of people were relieved by the comforting faces around me who were only eager to help. It must have been amusing to see such a fear-stricken face not knowing how to maneuver in what to most people is a daily experience.
Surely there's an order to the madness but that madness can be dignified and can be made not only more manageable but safer. Efforts to make public transport more convenient and widespread are commendable but if we are to engage in civic activism on this issue we need to demand more. Certainly, the experience of suffocation, stampedes and long waits on trains makes the aspiration to a private vehicle all the more appealing and lessens the likelihood of a generation wishing to use public transport.
After a safe arrival at my destination, I walked back along Bree St. checking out the newly painted cycle lanes. They are attractive and though not perfect, certainly align with the Open Streets agenda. We want more people on bicycles and skateboards moving around the city. However as it was pointed out by Nancy Richards in an interview on radio that evening, such infrastructure is only effectively available to those few who live close enough to the City centre. I challenged that statement on the basis that cycling is more accessible and realistic than our perceptions of space often allow us to see. Notwithstanding, the undeniable truth is the greatest majority in Cape Town lives at non-cyclable distances to expect daily commuting on a bike.
Thus, if we are really going to start a non-motorised revolution, we must get the public transport component right. How can we expect people to ride and get their bicycles or skateboards on the train when getting it on the first place in the mornings is close to mission impossible. Part of any Open Streets activist agenda must therefore be looking at the big picture. How do we put pressure on our public officials to cater to what is clearly an unsupplied demand by providing more regular service, larger carts and a safer system? And when we talk about safety on the streets, and public spaces are we also thinking of the crime commuters face on trains?
Genuine Open streets embed and generate respect regardless of who we are and how we move; and a large number of Capetonians move around the city by train. One could argue that once streets are embedded with respect people are more likely to behave respectfully anywhere they go, including trains. It might just be the first step to ensure mobility and transport is not a luxury but a basic human right.