The lifting of the ban on bicycles and skateboards on the promenade this week opened up more than a new route for transit, it triggered a very interesting set of discussions about public space, sharing the road, safety and what it means to live in Cape Town.
The harshest critics foretell the type of injuries that occur only on our heavily motorized roads and the end of peace in Seapoint. Interestingly, under almost no other circumstances are bicycles and skateboards referred to as vehicles. At the other end, those who have been waiting to ride on that beautiful stretch have mobilized their networks to ensure not a single incident takes place. Besides avoiding accidents, they clearly want the policy to stay in place after October.
For all involved the common element seems to be fear. Joggers fear the perceived recklessness of cyclists and skateboarders (not always unwarranted); those on wheels, in turn fear the City clamping down on an opportunity before it has been even given a chance; City officials fear if October doesn't work they will have to clean up the mess by re-imposing the ban and politicians fear the smallest accident will have them pay dearly at the next election polls.
The biggest risk in this experiment, however, is missing out on the opportunity of running into each other and thus helping generate genuine human interaction. Creating the space for new exchanges and, yes, potential collisions is a necessary risk when it comes to changing human behavior. Indeed, people mixing in crowds is what cities are all about. According to physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Betterncourt, cities follow the laws of physics. The more friction and velocity people experience in bouncing off one another, the more creation and innovation come as a result: "the most creative cities are simply the ones with the most collisions"they argue.
Maximizing interaction is therefore a winning formula for Cape Town. Diversifying the occupancy of public spaces is the first step to transforming a city that is divided by more than economics, race and politics, but also by the geography that makes sustainable mobility a challenge for everyone.
What is happening on the promenade is hopefully just the beginning of the opening of public spaces to more people in different parts of the city. Transport month is providing the framework to try out such measures which have succeeded in other parts of the world (temporarily closing streets to motorised traffic open streets- is another example). Building on this momentum will be key to develop a longer-term strategy of streets and public spaces which prioritise people by establishing slower speed limits, safe cycling lanes, pedestrian-friendly road design and beautiful parks, among others. After all, successful coexistence is only possible when we are exposed to our neighbours regularly. If collisions, hopefully not always literal ones, are the start to a conversation, then we need more open promenades around the city. Indeed, we need open streets and open spaces.