First published in the Weekend Argus, 6 November 2016
The latest leg on our Open Streets Cape Town (OSCT) journey began on 30 October 2016. This date was significant for two reasons. First, our 2016-17 summer series of Open Streets Days kicked off in Langa, a place we've been to twice before and always enjoy exploring. Second, we hosted Cape Town's first ever low-carbon transport race, the AtoB Challenge, with WWF Nedbank Green Trust.
In the latter, four teams started in Green Point and competed to arrive in Langa with the smallest carbon footprint. They had to use at least four modes of transport any combination of MyCiTi bus, Golden Arrow Bus Services bus, Metrorail train, minibus taxi, walking, cycling and electric car.
The aim was to show Capetonians that low-carbon transport options are available and viable. This dovetails with the OSCT manifesto point that streets should "provide choice in how we move around the city".
Several public figures led the charge. Among them were the City of Cape Town's Mayco member for Tourism, Events and Economic Development, Councillor Eddie Andrews; the Western Cape provincial minister of Transport and Public Works, Donald Grant; the City's head of Energy and Climate Change, Sarah Ward; and radio and TV personality Liezel van der Westhuizen.
The challenge for us now is to keep the momentum as we head to the next leg of our series, Open Streets Bellville, on 20 November 2016. We will once again be running this Open Streets Day in collaboration with the Greater Tygerberg Partnership (GTP), a public-private partnership that works to create a vibrant Voortrekker Road for all who make the corridor part of their lives.
Voortrekker Road is a major Cape Town artery that connects many of the northern suburbs with the inner city over a 17km stretch of commercial, industrial and residential areas. It is the focal point of an area City planners have earmarked for densification, bringing a growing population closer to jobs and services.
It is also a hive of transportation options that runs parallel with the northern Metrorail line. In an article on Future Cape Town, Walter Fieuw, who worked as a programme manager at GTP, said: "Voortrekker Road, as its namesake indicates, has always played a primary transport role in Cape Town, first for migrating Afrikaners, and today for thousands of people passing through the neighbourhoods of Salt River, Maitland, Kensington, Goodwood, Parow and Bellville."
In October 2015, OSCT came to Bellville for the first time, transforming a portion of Voortrekker Road into a car-free zone. This meant everybody was able to use it to walk, cycle, skate, play or perform with reduced risk. This is per our manifesto points that streets "should be places for recreation and social interaction" and "provide platforms for creative expression of local cultures and values".
If you've ever tried to cross Voortrekker Road on a normal day, however, you'll know that pedestrian freedom is not a priority. But we enjoy disruption and on 20 November 2016, when we return, OSCT will be kicking it into high gear. This time, a longer stretch of Voortrekker Road will close to traffic (between 10h00 and 15h00).
OSCT and the GTP have collaborated on another disruption in the corridor to test pedestrian behaviour. Earlier this year, we embarked on a "lighter, quicker, cheaper" tactical urbanism project in Bellville's Kruskal Avenue. Called the B4 Campaign (Bench, Bin and Blomme for Bellville), the idea was to unearth insights about how we act in public space. We placed a bench, a bin and a vertical garden in key locations and observed how people interacted with these purpose-built objects. Interestingly enough, over five months later and the benches are still in place and in use.
We also observed that permanent fixtures designed for different reasons play an interesting role in public life. For example, traffic bollards in the vicinity doubled as seating; the public used electrical boxes for leaning; and the palm tree on the roundabout at Cross Street is an identifiable landmark for a rendezvous.
Our chairperson Rory Williams, who conceptualised the B4 Campaign with fellow board member Marco Geretto, noted: "Urban design theory might provide guidelines for what kinds of space will 'work' in creating positive spaces, but there are clearly spaces that do not meet recommended design criteria and yet attract people for one reason or another."
This is notable in Bellville, where motorists have "right of way" and non-motorists "find a way". But if Voortrekker Road is to play a significant role in housing the growing population, as envisioned in the City's Voortrekker Road Corridor Integration Zone Strategy and Investment Plan, then Open Streets Bellville is an opportunity to reimagine it as a corridor that permanently prioritises people over cars.
On 3 September, a group of 20 of us convened at the Bellville Public Library for a Talking Streets walk to gauge the challenges. We explored Voortrekker Road from the perspectives of different road users and discovered there is huge potential for sharing the space - and a lot of room for improvement. Currently, there are few ramps for wheelchair users. Public transport signage and rain shelter are minimal. Cyclists aren't really catered for. In South Africa, what government spends on motorists versus other road users is disproportionate and does not benefit the majority. Voortrekker Road reflects this. Yet, with all the different kinds of road users it attracts, it could be a testing ground for a more sustainable, people-friendly Cape Town.
It was clear from our Talking Streets experience that transport and urban planners could benefit from walking in someone else's shoes. We think ordinary citizens could too and Open Streets Bellville will give them the chance to interrogate the way they move around.
Join us on 20 November as we continue the journey.