The healthy way to get around our cities

Cape Town, like any urban area, is a city on the move. You can see it in every corner of its 2 461km2 metropolitan area, where 3.7-million people jostle for space on our roads. From Mitchells Plain to Milnerton, Sea Point to Strand, congestion is commonplace and smog levels are rising.

Traffic jams mean lost time and wasted fuel — a drain on people’s lives as well as the economy. And air pollution is a serious health concern. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimated in 2014 that it was the root cause of as many as seven million premature deaths worldwide.

Transport also creates emissions of greenhouse gases, the leading cause of our current global warming. Car use, especially single occupancy car use, is the prime cause of these emissions from the passenger transport sector.

And things will only get worse if we move along the same trajectory. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population will live in cities like Cape Town, up from about 50% today. And the World Economic Forum estimates that the number of cars on the world’s roads will double by 2040, reaching two billion.

This is why Open Streets Cape Town advocates for non-motorised transport and has hosted car-free days across the city over the past five years. Launched by a group of street-minded citizens, it’s a way for Capetonians (born and honorary) to make a difference in the place they live. It allows us to think globally, act locally.

Our own research shows that half of all households in Cape Town own a car, with 85% of households in the highest income bracket owning one or more. The city would have 250 000 more cars if 50% of low and low-middle income households without a car bought one. (You can read more in Open Streets Cape Town’s January 2017 policy brief, Stuck in my car: how to drive less and not die trying.)

We’re aware of the perception that reliable alternatives to cars don’t exist here. Cape Town’s low density has resulted in public transport being difficult to operate at a high service level across the entire city. This doesn’t just discourage car drivers from using trains etc, it virtually compels poor households to buy a car to access opportunities.

MyCiTi is improving the situation in some areas but has had its own problems in 2018, the wildcat strike being the latest. It’ll be decades before the service has rolled out across the metropole and who knows how long before our vital train services are reliable.

So what do we, as ordinary citizens, do in the meantime? How can we empower ourselves to move in the most efficient and healthy way?

At the end of the day, what people really need is accessibility to various urban services. And many cities are demonstrating that we don’t need private vehicles to achieve this.

Every year on September 22, cities across the globe celebrate World Car-Free Day, encouraging motorists to give up their cars for a day. The event highlights the benefits of going car-free to citizens and ties in with several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Madrid, Spain, is an example of a city seeing real benefits in car-free days and taking it to the next level. In 2005, Madrid set up its first pedestrian-only zone in the neighbourhood of Las Letras. Authorities are extending this to a large portion of the city centre by 2020. Urban planners are even redesigning the city’s busiest streets for walking rather than driving.

Oslo, Norway, also plans to permanently ban cars from its city centre, by 2019. And the Chinese city of Chengdu has streets specifically designed so that people can walk anywhere in 15 minutes.

When Paris banned cars with even-numbered plates for a day in 2014, pollution dropped by a whopping 30%. Now the city is discouraging motorists from driving in the city centre at all. The mayor says Paris also plans to double its bike lanes by 2020.

The city had its first car-free day in 2015 and, in October this year, signalled its intent for the city centre to go car-free for the first Sunday of every month.

On the other side of the world, Latin America has been at the vanguard of the car-free movement for decades. In April 2016, Mexico City prohibited a portion of cars from driving into the city centre two days every work week and two Saturdays per month. It determines which cars can drive on a given day using a rotating system based on license plate numbers. This policy applies to an estimated two million cars and helps bring down the city’s high smog levels.

Then, of course, there’s Bogotá, Colombia, where over 120km of roads have closed to vehicles every Sunday and public holiday since 1974. This is Ciclovía, one of the main inspirations for Open Streets Cape Town, which is well-loved and supported by Bogotanos, and has improved mobility and quality of life in the city. There is even a popular slogan saying, “Bogota has no sea, but it has Ciclovia”.

Cars are falling out of fashion closer to home too. Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is one of the most congested cities in the world. To tackle this, Nairobi County has proposed car-free Wednesdays and Saturdays in two of the busiest parts of the city. Douala, Cameroon just hosted their first Car-free day and more are planned across the continent for 2019.

To help foster the car-free movement in Africa, Open Streets Cape Town recently hosted the first Open Streets Exchange for African cities. Nineteen participants from 11 countries took part. The goal of this gathering was to facilitate knowledge sharing among people working in mobility and transport. We wanted to create a platform to learn from each other and explore the potential for Open Streets and similar initiatives in other African cities.

To start, lecturers from the Centre for Transport Studies at UCT laid out a high-level view of non-motorised transport (NMT) in South Africa. Participants then shared the status of NMT in their own hometowns. Their presentations revealed that many African cities share similar barriers to building a culture of NMT. We’re all lacking in infrastructure and political will, and overly dependent on cars. Then there are socioeconomic issues that force people to walk in unsafe environments.

And a biggie: social and economic exclusion. In Cape Town, for example, apartheid spatial planning policies persist. In some areas there are literal barriers to mobility and there seems to be a general lack of political or administrative will to rectify this. People have to jump through hoops to access those urban services.

This summer, our series of Open Streets Days in Cape Town returns to main roads in all five areas where the programme has taken root, namely, Woodstock, Bellville, City Centre, Langa and Mitchells Plain. The invitation to residents is to use the Open Streets platform to reimagine these different parts of the city. Closed to motorised vehicles and open to people, these road become spaces for walkers, cyclists and wheelchair users to move safely, and for showcasing of local music, dance and community-based initiatives. These days bring people together and inspire action.

We believe this kind of experiential learning could lead to real behaviour change and increased advocacy for NMT. Already it’s easy to imagine a Voortrekker Road on a “normal day” where people fill the street instead of cars. There they are, going about their business – walking between banks and other services, stores and traders, and eateries.

On January 27, the next Open Streets City Centre will take place on Bree Street, which is a major destination in the city centre, lined with some of the trendiest restaurants and shops in Cape Town. On this day, it will be transformed into an inclusive and neutral space for all to enjoy the iconic street. Although some might just consider it a party or a festival, we hope they will also become aware of joining the ‘movement for better movement’. This includes taking the opportunity to leave their cars at home and test a different mode of transport for getting to Open Streets that day.

And as they reminisce about how safe it was to play in the streets when they were younger, they will be voting with their feet. Because as each Open Streets Day passes, we get closer to a new normal where people realise streets are actually public spaces — people spaces.

We hope that when attendees leave Open Streets Bree they will continue to try new things when it comes to getting around. Maybe they’ll organise their own street gatherings in their neighbourhoods, or try to cycle to work in pursuit of more street freedom.

It’ll be an opportunity to make a new year, new streets resolution. And with every one of those, we gather momentum towards a healthier city, country and planet.