Maverick Citizen

Movement For All Op-ed

Vision of a sustainable, car-free transport future for Stellenbosch

Matie Bike started in Stellenbosch University in 2012 and currently has a fleet of 250 bicycles which students and staff can rent annually.  (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

The Winelands town is a great testing ground to get mobility right and to reap all the economic benefits for its residents.

Stellenbosch exhibits many contrasts, and one is most evident on its streets: mobility. Despite its picturesque, walkable streets, it seems stuck in a permanent traffic jam. Can this beacon of wealth and innovation show other towns in South Africa how to rethink movement for all?

To the outsider, Stellenbosch conjures up quaint images of people on bicycles, walking and dining, often on the sidewalks of a peaceful, oak-lined urban centre. Yet on a recent visit, I was confronted with quite a different reality. Stuck in early morning bumper-to-bumper traffic, I tried to imagine a different experience as a visitor, and what life for residents would be like if the much-lauded plans for sustainable transport and spatial development materialised.

The exemplary vision of the Western Cape’s sustainable transport plan of “by 2030 the prioritisation of walking and cycling within urban areas and linking settlements serves as a primary catalyst for urban regeneration, densification and mixed-use development, such that a sustainable and thriving future of Stellenbosch is ensured” could not be any closer to this urbanist’s dream of public space being a direct catalyst to economic recovery and development.

Many Kayamandi residents have a daily 5km walk from their homes to central Stellenbosch. The initial route along George Blake Road has good walking and cycling infrastructure, but that stops when pedestrians reach Adam Tas Road.
(Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)
Stellenbosch is a mecca for recreational cyclists. Thousands occupy the streets and trails of the region over weekends but sadly this does not translate to more commuting during the week.
(Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

By most accounts, the town has all the right ingredients: it is mostly flat and relatively small, with a high concentration of young people and intellectual wealth, thanks to Stellenbosch University. Even better, individuals in the municipality and civil society genuinely believe in the positive impact that walking and cycling could have, with enabling policies already in place. If that was not enough, Stellenbosch has substantial capital at its disposal, admittedly mostly private, combined with a desire to become a centre for innovation.

In my dreamlike state, I pictured a virtually car-free centre with people of all backgrounds cycling or walking from park-and-ride facilities; children walking to school; commerce and culture thriving, and a visible increase in affordable housing closer to where people work or study.

When I woke, still stuck in traffic, it was suddenly clear that the only thing needed to realise this dream is to start connecting the dots. Indeed, 80% of vehicular trips generated within the town are less than 5km in length, the university has an active bicycle scheme called Matie Bike for students and staff, motorists seem largely respectful of pedestrian crossings, and current project plans include solutions to the housing shortage.

Building on this context might seem relatively simple, yet unfortunately, coherent implementation is not. After talking to some Stellenbosch residents and stakeholders in this space, I came away with three possible reasons behind the nightmarish lack of mobility in this beautiful town. 

Plans only part of the solution 

In 2015, a Cycling Master Plan for Stellenbosch was drafted by Transport Futures, a Stellenbosch-based consultancy. Sustainable transport advocates such as Carinus Lemmer, a long-time cyclist and co-founder of the NGO Stellenbosch Fietsry, refers to this document as “the Bible” for its authoritative guidance. It incorporates a robust analysis on infrastructure, and programming requirements, yet remains a “good blueprint without teeth”, says sustainable transport planner and advisor Richard Gordge, who co-authored the plan. Dishearteningly, despite being funded by the municipality and supported by an array of stakeholders, the plan was not embedded in the town’s Comprehensive Integrated Transport Plan – the document intended to guide transport planning for Stellenbosch – leaving officials with no real mechanisms or pressure to implement it.

Another challenge was, unsurprisingly, securing sufficient funding for implementation. Gordge explains that budget was initially identified within the Provincial Roads Programme to integrate sustainable outcomes through a collaborative initiative with the province. The idea was to encourage public transport, walking and cycling through the implementation of infrastructure, including park-and-ride facilities and the completion of the Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) network. Thus began a process of negotiation and lobbying to undertake demonstration projects and test out promising ideas.  However, this momentum eventually waned, and while the province still runs a Provincial Sustainable Transport Programme, its key objectives have not been realised in Stellenbosch, which is now stuck with an incomplete NMT network and no park-and-ride facilities.

Stellenbosch also has a commendable Spatial Development Framework (SDF), which in relation to mobility says, “We need to work to a situation where future growth is enabled by the introduction of shared transport options, formal public transport, and for the shorter journeys provision for safe cycling and walking.” 

This is music to the ears of anyone who believes in sustainable development and the principles of a wellbeing economy, which measures growth in enhanced social and ecological well-being beyond financial outputs. As Gordge points out however: “One side of the municipality has the right words in reports but, despite the Integrated Development Plan and the SDF being the higher-level plans that must be adhered to, this appears to have had no influence over the engineering directorate, who seem intent to remain mistakenly focused on allowing and enabling further road-building and parking for private vehicles.”

University Boulevard is heavily transited by the Stellensbosch University community and residents alike. In addition to walking & cycling facilities, it provides attractive greenery and shade.
(Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)
Restaurants and cafes spill onto the streets along the town’s sidewalks, a concept that is in stark contrast to the congestion of peak traffic that regularly clogs the leafy single lane roads. 
(Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)
Early morning traffic. The Roads Masterplan for Stellenbosch suggests that weekday morning and afternoon peak period congestion will only increase. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Big dreams take longer

A frequent stumbling block for real change is the clash between short-term political horizons and the long-term commitment required to achieve anything tangible. The Adam Tas Corridor Project, for example, lays out an ambitious plan for densification and the implementation of a radical sustainable transportation system in town, to pave the next 30 years. 

A large-scale attempt to rethink settlement policy and management, the project would “double the current population without any adverse impact on existing residents and increasing efficiency across many sectors including economy, wellbeing and health, through walking and cycling,” says Stephen Boshoff, Associate for Strategy, Planning and Development at Built Environment Partnership, who was involved in its design.

Substantial changes are needed in the short term to get there, such as land rezoning, increasing affordable housing and reclaiming public spaces. As in many cities, these measures tend to be unpopular because urban sprawl and the habit of parking at our destinations have been normalised for too long, especially where safety is an issue and practical alternatives are not clear. In this vein, politicians strive, at all costs, to keep their valued constituencies undisturbed.

And so a vicious cycle ensues: legislation to support long-term plans is blocked from creation or adoption, local government officials are unable to act without it, those who advocate to change the status quo become despondent, and residents continue to accept the current reality as unchangeable. 

As Boshoff points out, the solution lies in negotiating “ways of working” and finding institutional arrangements that address both political and ultimately human processes. In other words: genuine long-term collaboration and partnership. 

Making business sense

A big hurdle to change is fear of the unknown, and business owners and government officials understandably want to tread carefully. Radical change, nonetheless, is needed when tackling issues such as reducing parking space, which is a contentious but critical aspect of using public space for a more prosperous Stellenbosch; both in decongesting the urban centre and enabling more affordable housing that aligns with the vision of a resilient town.

The private sector can support better use of public space in other ways too, by, for example, reducing employee travel by providing park-and-ride facilities, and promoting the use of shuttles (to generate new trips for taxis) and bicycles. Herein lies an opportunity to elevate the corporate role in the town, while improving staff wellbeing and productivity.

A multi-sector approach to safety can also have a direct impact on the local economy. Muggings are frequent enough to deter people from cycling. Stellenbosch University, for instance, fears that implementing measures that prevent students from driving could be a liability in the case of incidents. Thus ensues another vicious cycle, which can only be stopped with more people on the street walking and cycling at all hours of the day, along with the infrastructure required to make journeys safer. 

Stellenbosch is a great testing ground for a town to get mobility right and to reap all the positive economic benefits, while fostering a collective sense of prosperity and wellbeing for all greater Stellenbosch residents. 

A different future is indeed possible. The Stellenbosch NMT Masterplan spells it out clearly in its vision of a town with “walkable and cyclable environments that are safe for all to use and contribute to the mobility needs, economic vibrancy and social health of communities”. 

Implementing existing plans, thinking long-term, and working in partnership, are only some of the measures called for. There are many more needed to make this ideal future a reality. DM/MC

Marcela Guerrero Casas works as a programme lead for the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership. This work was supported by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa.

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  • Would be great if the University could assist students who are unable to pay the eye-watering rents demanded by Stellies landlords to get to class from Durbanville, khayelitsha, Strand, Somerset West. Just simple bus service once a day in and out would be a help.

    People who have the privilege of living in Stellenbosch are not the people with transport problems.

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