Maverick Citizen


Cape Town transport’s day zero: We are more than just 2% of budget spend

Cape Town Station deck was mostly abandoned at 5pm on Tuesday, 20 July 2021. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Monday 19 July, when Cape Town’s society in motion ground to a halt, was our public transport day zero — a painfully obvious and inevitable outcome of a poorly considered transport system.

Kirsten Wilkins is the managing director of Open Streets Cape Town.

With reference to the opinion piece by DA Councillor Mikhail Manuel published by Daily Maverick.

We appreciate this as the first considered political statement published on the City of Cape Town transport crisis and its acknowledgement of the more complex systemic issues that beleaguer transport in our city. This is beyond the visible and traumatic taxi-related violence experienced by those who call Cape Town home.

Our partners and colleagues who advocate for innovative, community-led and just mobility solutions will understand too well that the physical transport network, the shared public spaces through which mobility modes move and the regulatory structures that seek to control these networks are as fragile as they are interconnected.

It is as problematic to single out the taxi industry as one amorphous thuggish element as it is to separate that complex mobility mode from an integrated understanding of urban transport. Similarly, to solve an issue occurring at the present time without recognising the interconnectedness of today’s mobility experiences with historic land disposition and limited access to well-located opportunities is equally narrow-minded.

Transport encompasses all of city life and society, it is simply the human condition in motion.

NGOs and organisations outside of government, such as Open Streets Cape Town, work in the interstitial spaces of these complex government-managed transport networks. We attempt to close up gaps, build partnerships and work where the government can’t or simply won’t. Skill sets in this motley crew of businesses and activist groupings differ, from specialising in technology to focusing on research and even working in heritage. What connects us most strongly is the drive to centre mobility on people, to improve or advocate for better lived experiences and importantly to foreground safety and choice.

Through our partnerships with organisations such as Sonke Gender Justice, Childsafe and the Bicycling Empowerment Network, we have sought to bring together government decision-makers, government policymakers, government officials and the public of public transport. Our vision and efforts look to mobilise partnerships, demonstrate solutions and inspire positive, citizen-led ways of transforming how we move around the city. We are a strong network of partners and friends, and we count many individuals in government as friends of the movement that is Open Streets Cape Town. We do what we can to innovate, encourage and connect.

On the evening of Monday, 19 July in Cape Town, our society-in-motion ground to a halt and there were no public transport options available for commuters.

There was bound to be a reckoning or crucible moment for the transport directorate as its history of decisions conflated in crisis. Just as the city’s water and sanitation services so cruelly experienced in the lead-up to the city running out of water. Monday was that reckoning for mobility.

Thousands of commuters were left stranded as buses and taxis ceased operations under the pressure of intimidation, violence and fear. The continued inadequate provision of MyCiti and Metrorail services stayed true to their insignificant contribution on this evening of reckoning.

Monday was our public transport day zero. While it was initially shocking, as all breaking stories are, it was also a painfully obvious and inevitable outcome of a poorly considered transport system. This system has shown its failure to recognise its history, grown inept in its responsibility to integrate effectively between departments and has revealed its refusal to recognise and respond to the lived experiences of the people it serves. The organisations working in the gaps understand this inevitable cessation of function, because we stand in the gaps, pointing out the opportunities to remedy failure through community-based innovation and advocacy.

In his Daily Maverick article, Councillor Mikhail Manuel suggests that the resilience and solution-making of citizens will pull us through this crisis, just as we stood together in water Day Zero and the initial devastations of Covid lockdown. We agree with his optimism. With a twist.

Many of the citizens (“the Phoenix” as Councillor Manuel suggests) that are equipped and wanting to be change-makers of the stagnant status quo are in fact embedded in the city administration at present.

We want to recognise and thank people in both local and provincial government who are those innovative and solution-minded engineers and administrators. Colleagues who have supported Open Streets Cape Town, who open the floor for us to have robust conversations, who are exemplary public servants and who truly need leadership support to institutionalise innovation.

We have confidence that innovative policies such as the current and approved Cape Town Cycling Strategy and the Climate Resilience Strategy can be implemented if our political and management leadership can support staff and officials to do so. These are both based on the UN Sustainability Goals which effectively and clearly merge addressing poverty, mobility and climate response in a way that is measurable for the good of all. The intellectual and strategic work that already exists is exemplary.

So why is it not working?

It is a truly difficult job to speak out firmly and judgmentally at this time, rather than to build through positivity and demonstrated change, as is our way.

We need to speak truth while as a movement of citizens we enthusiastically raise our hands to be a part of rebuilding a mobility network that serves people rather than conservatively maintaining an untransformed utility asset.

The citizen movement to transform “streets and mobility for all” is at the ready, as both active citizens within government and those working outside of its halls.

Here is what we need:

  • Political and administrative leadership that is in lockstep
    • Co-leading with locally relevant, innovative and bold implementation of policy.
  • A mobility-justice mindset
    • Transport can no longer be framed, as those trained in engineering or economics may prefer, as a well-functioning utility. It is inherently political. Streets are shared spaces managed by those elected to do so, they are public spaces and public networks. Investment that decides who belongs and who is safe either through priority or policing needs to be considered with a mobility justice mindset, foregrounding and serving the marginalised, the dispossessed and the vulnerable. The majority of citizens in Cape Town do not and are unlikely to ever own a car. The provision of viable non-car based travel choice is a recognition of that reality.
  • An institutional culture that values public input and a budget to support engagement
    • The majority of transport engineering project work is outsourced to firms that do not have the responsibility or wherewithal to engage with the public in their delivery of professional services. Policy engagement within the city is robust, but community engagement in geographically specific areas, and on specific projects is woefully nonexistent or paternalistic at best.
  • Project-based budgets for communities to improve mobility spaces as they choose. 
    • An example would be the critical recognition of spaces that can accommodate horse-drawn vehicles, the acceptance and safety of skateboarding as commuting and of course, walking routes for children. Seventy percent of South African children walk to school yet the budget for creating walkable spaces in our city accounts for less than 2% of budget spend.

Open Streets Cape Town has a robust and positive relationship across spheres of government and civil society. We have shown that there are alternative ways to understand our shared mobility spaces. We have demonstrated and have reported on ways in which to connect bicycle travel to trains, measured and tested carbon reduction in travel mode shifts and at present we are working on the largest bicycle commuter data gathering project in the city’s history. We stand with colleagues and innovators in these interstitial spaces, colleagues in government, ready for leadership that values partnerships and budgeting that values justice.

Public transport day zero was a shock, and the inevitable reckoning brought to bear on a transport system and administration that has not transformed to become a people-first integrated public service. We are not a flow of vehicles, we are not an industry of criminals, we are not congestion.

We are more than 2%. DM/MC


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All Comments 4

  • Interesting article. A proposal in effect to solve a specific problem, through a social/civic compact. Even our President has suggested such mechanisms. These compacts will require at least some formalising/structure to provide accountability. To succeed we need a major change in the organisation of Municipalities that have compromised delivery structure. Municipalities exist to deliver services within 3 areas – in business speak, 3 different businesses:
    1. Utilities/basic services; local roads/transport, water, sanitation, electricity (in some), refuse etc
    2. Welfare/charity; allocating services to the poor and those that need help with access to basic services/utilities
    3. Public amenities – swimming pools, parks etc
    Municipalities organise these 3 different organisations, that have different management needs, in a single structure. The outcome is poor focus in direction, staffing, systems, operational management (the guys actually doing the delivery). Importantly, the decision-making executive are politicians, not mangers with skills at running these 3 different organisations, each of which requires unique skill sets and experience. In a major metro the “CEO” of what should be primarily a utilities business is a politician. We need to do away with Executive Mayors and separate the running/managing of our Municipalities from the decisions on political direction. Overlay this with a civil service similarly resourced that align on delivery, and we’ll be on the right track.

    • You should have said “in an ideal world”, because to me it seems as if municipalities exist to collect rates and taxes, and serve themselves. This is without doubt true re ANC led municipalities, but also not do far off for DA led municipalities. The latter simply know how to budget and execute better. Municipalities go not serve their constituencies, and that is the first thing that needs to change, and that change will not happen until the people make it happen – ie independents. Regarding the article, which is interesting in the extreme, despite a positivism that seems out of place, considering: we certainly need to break the strangle hold the taxi industry has on our metros, and on our economy. Transport is the single most important aspect of any economy, and it cannot be left in the hands of thuggish privately-owned enterprises ship routinely use violence to sort out differences. This is indeed capitalism in its purest form, much like the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. Public transport has to be owned by the public, but run like a corporation. #TaxisMustFall

  • Maybe after Ramaphosa’s bullet train and smart city. Rather concentrate on the basics. Get the taxi gangsters, train sabateurs and cable thieves behind bars and get the trains and busses running.

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted