FREE THE STREETS OP-ED
People enjoy car-free spaces, so why don’t we have more of them?
For many years, as co-founder of Open Streets Cape Town, I spent my days trying to demonstrate the value of car-free spaces for the city’s residents. I still believe that experiencing a city with fewer vehicles helps us understand and inhabit our public spaces better, but sustaining this concept requires more than a once-off activation.
A car-free city demands profound changes in our individual behaviour and significant investment by government and the private sector, not to mention complete buy-in from everyone involved.
The concept of Zero Emission Areas (ZEA) might seem more suited to developed cities like Paris or Copenhagen, where car-free spaces are possible because there are public transport alternatives and people can walk from place to place. This may be true, yet it also holds that such spaces can and must exist in African cities if we are to respond to climate change.
Cape Town is part of the C40 cities network, a global alliance of mayors and cities taking an ambitious approach to climate action. As such, Cape Town has signed on to the C40 “green and healthy streets” declaration which calls for the electrification of vehicles and the creation of ZEAs in central business districts. It turns out the Bellville CBD is already on course to creating what might be the closest Cape Town gets to a ZEA.
The city’s plans for Bellville
The Voortrekker Road corridor that crosses Bellville is a critical transport artery for Cape Town that also connects communities. Yet while the corridor “connects people from all over the city, it falls short of providing appropriate transportation options”, says Mercy Brown-Luthango from the African Centre of Cities, whose research in this area dates back many years. She points specifically to the ongoing problems with Metrorail.
Plans for Bellville to showcase the principles of Transit Orientated Development (TOD), which centres cities along transport corridors to increase access to amenities and shorten travel times, have been around for a while. Currently, the City of Cape Town is refining a local spatial development framework for Bellville that will undergo a comprehensive public participation process. The proposal includes several new road schemes, a non-motorised transport strategy and the creation of a vibrant, pedestrian-focused CBD.
The opportunities for collaboration around these plans are enormous.
Beyond local government, a number of stakeholders are already deeply invested in their success. Warren Hewitt, CEO of the Greater Tygerberg Partnership, a local non-profit working to “unlock Bellville’s potential as a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive leading African city”, believes the best approach is to focus on a small area.
“There is a strong argument to start by making six blocks of the CBD vehicle-free to reduce emissions, then join this space with Bellville’s green belt and start having broader conversations around net zero buildings and the city’s wider plans. What is important is to start small and test solutions in an iterative manner,” he says.
Making the CBD vehicle-free is no simple task. Even though the existing infrastructure along Kruskal Avenue prioritises pedestrians and public transport, Bellville has a large number of wholesalers and commercial businesses which attract many vehicles throughout the day.
Hewitt points out that most are delivery vehicles, and that many people could easily park three blocks away and walk. By introducing park-and-ride facilities, super basement infrastructure — which utilises underground space — and more pedestrian-friendly features, turning these few blocks into a ZEA might not be far-fetched.
Despite the potential of a localised activation, managing a larger ZEA is cumbersome. As Prof Roger Behrens from UCT’s Centre for Transport Studies explains, larger vehicle-free zones elsewhere have required significant infrastructure such as gantries and number plate recognition technology. This would be unrealistic in Bellville — however, a low-tech approach like the one used in Singapore in the 1990s where police screen licences at key entry points into the CBD could be an alternative, he says.
Such a system could be set up, but as Behrens points out, “the biggest barrier to car restriction measures is not technical… it is political.”
Restricting vehicle access is often perceived as a hurdle to economic activity, even when evidence suggests the contrary. It is not an easy sell, especially after the profound disruptions businesses have faced during the pandemic. Further, cordoning off such a small area might have a limited impact on emissions, given that pollution respects no boundaries. Still, Bellville could deliver a meaningful demonstration project to be expanded or replicated in the long term
The other side of this conversation relates to electric vehicles (EVs).
Given South Africa’s energy challenges and reliance on dirty sources of energy, the evidence in support of EVs isn’t straightforward. It is, however, still an important element in the ZEA equation.
Behrens suggests that allowing their entry starts with making electric vehicles more attractive to potential users, such as by introducing import duty waivers, car licensing and energy supply mechanisms.
“Once those vehicle fleets start to permeate the city, along with infrastructure such as charging stations, the more spatial dimension of the policy can follow.”
The most important entry point is of course public transport and, as the second-largest transport interchange in Cape Town, Bellville is an ideal testing ground. While there are proposals for an airport light rail link, Behrens points to the electrification of small delivery vehicles, buses and minibus taxis in the near future.
The conversation around electric minibus taxis remains largely academic but is gaining momentum. According to Behrens, “there is a real gap in the market that South Africa should try to fill. Our Department of Trade and Industry should put in place mechanisms to establish local manufacturing of these vehicles, given the demand locally and across our borders”.
He also points to the work of Justin Coetzee and Thinus Booysen at Stellenbosch University, who have identified electric models in China which could be suitable for the South African context.
It’s about the people
As with any climate-related measure, it is critical to centre plans around people’s needs and realities. As Louise Naude from WWF points out, it isn’t about tearing down and building from scratch: “This goes for both buildings and the social fabric of a particular place.”
The buildings of the Bellville CBD won’t be turned into net zero constructions overnight. The users of the space will be impacted by any change in the urban form and must be acknowledged and consulted.
Craig Kensley, director of GrowZA Social Investment Agency, suggests the first filter is understanding who uses the space and why. Once this is clearer, decisions as to which combination of activities to retain existing users and attract new users should be considered to enrich the experience of everyone moving through the CBD.
When it comes to the users of the Bellville CBD, safety is paramount. Kensley points to the availability of green spaces and the need for increased understanding and appreciation of Bellville’s green lung, which runs from the CBD all the way to Tygerberg Hill.
However, the safety conundrum, which is not unique to Bellville, means that public areas like Elizabeth Park are cordoned off in response to crime. This makes them inaccessible and therefore under-utilised environments that don’t provide a true sense of safety.
Nonetheless, there are promising initiatives to green public spaces in the area. The Life-Changing Gardens, hosted by MES, a local non-profit supported by the GTP and people like Kensley, show the desire of residents to create spaces that are conducive to thinking about the CBD differently, whether it’s producing food, engaging with other residents or raising awareness about the need for better urban practices.
Transforming Bellville’s CBD is a long-term process and the city’s plans will likely only be visible in 10 years or more. Setting the regulatory foundations is the first step, and these must remain flexible to respond to any changes over this period. In the meantime, the creation of the ZEA will require continued imagination and a return to basics.
Building trust with communities starts by providing basic services and, as Kensley highlights, working with those already using the space so that their lived experience forms the basis for future plans.
Testing inexpensive models that support a ZEA can help inform longer-term plans. Whether it means using traffic officers to manage licences, thereby restricting vehicle use, the creation of cycle routes for students in the neighbourhood or planting trees in cities as advised by WWF, many small steps can start creating a conducive environment for low emission zones in our city.
Longer-term plans must also be in place, but we need short-term wins to sustain the work and the partnerships that are required for this to be a reality. DM/MC
Marcela Casas works as a programme lead for the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP). As part of its focus on building partnerships around inclusive, sustainable economic development, the EDP is working with the city’s Sustainable Energy Markets (SEM) Department to explore synergies with existing city plans as well as with community-led initiatives in Bellville and beyond. This work was supported by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa
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