Defend Truth


Eco-stress in sweltering Sandton

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The City of Johannesburg has imposed a startling 'experiment' on the heart of the South African economy, closing roads and restricting access to force people to go to work on public transport, bicycles or on foot, rather than using their own vehicles. Welcome to the age of eco-tyranny, where you no longer get to run your life.

Smart people run small pilot programmes in non-critical parts of the country. Not the City of Joburg. It has chosen its richest and busiest region to conduct what Lisa Seftel, the city’s executive transport director, calls “an experiment”. For an entire month, invasive measures such as road closures will be adopted to force people out of their cars to travel on public transport, bicycles, or on foot.

The occasion? Something called the EcoMobility World Festival, which Joburg mayor Parks Tau says, “will demonstrate to the world that an ecomobile future is possible and that public transport, walking and cycling can be accessible, safe and attractive”.

If that were true, don’t you think people would have chosen these options already, considering how congested Sandton’s roads are? The fact that people choose to use their cars suggests that public transport, walking and cycling are not accessible, safe or attractive for many people.

Gauteng’s premier, David Makhura, told reporters that he quite understands why people might be irritated, but “for the sake of future generations, for our environment, [we must] take drastic steps though quite uncomfortable”.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. People are irritated because they’re being messed around by eco-activists and grand-standing bureaucrats.

The initiative will likely do very little to improve the environment. Even assuming that carbon dioxide poses a grave threat to our future, which is debatable, some arithmetic on numbers provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that private light-duty vehicles account for only about 12% of global energy-related emissions. However, that is based on world averages. In poor regions, like sub-Saharan Africa, that figure drops by a factor of 10.

So, only a few percentage points of carbon emissions are emitted by private vehicles, Sandton accounts for only a small fraction of that, and only some of it can be mitigated. Is this drastic and uncomfortable step really as necessary as Makhura appears to believe?

Then there’s this blasé bromide on the EcoMobility website: “The discomfort and inconvenience caused by the closures will be matched by the comfort of using public transport, walking and cycling around Sandton.”

The weather in Sandton is predicted to be north of 30°C for at least the rest of this week. I’ve taken public transport in such heat, and I can assure you, there is nothing comfortable about it. The same is true for walking and cycling. Turning up at meetings red-faced, puffing and stinking of sweat is hardly conducive to good business. No wonder people are irritated.

The young and fit might find it merely unpleasant, especially if they’re not among the lucky few who have showers at the office, but excessive exertion and heatstroke can be dangerous for older or less healthy people.

Even for those who do have access to an office gym with showers, I can imagine a lot of people, male and female, who don’t particularly like the idea of using public bathrooms where co-workers get to watch them in all their naked glory.

But the winner of the award for the stupidest non sequitur must be Transport Minister Dipuo Peters. She told the media walking is not only for the poor: “There are people who would love to have legs, so let us make sure that those of us who still have our legs are able to do that [sic].”

Yes, minister, and a lot of people would love to have cars, so let us make sure that those of us who actually have cars are able to use them.

Seftel explained to Eyewitness News: “EcoMobility Month is about changing the way we use road-space, both in Sandton and coming towards Sandton, to be able to give people an opportunity to envisage and to experience what a more public walking cycling future [sic] can be about.”

But this isn’t about giving anyone an opportunity to envisage anything. It is about forcing people to do something they do not want to do.

Public transport is less safe than travelling in a locked and tracked private vehicle. Bag-snatching and wallet-lifting are easier and less risky than smash-and-grab offences or vehicle hijacking. This is especially true at night. If you’re working late, and you’re on your own, it is a lot safer to take a private car than to walk, cycle or take public transport.

Carting a laptop bag and all the other accoutrements one needs for work onto and off of trains and buses, is harder and risks damage or loss. A trip to the grocery store after work is easy if you can drop your shopping bags in a car, but is not so easy if you have to schlepp those same bags home on foot, by bicycle or on a train.

Absurdly, the city is providing park-and-ride facilities for commuters to Sandton. So after all that effort to use public transport, it can’t even take you all the way home. You still need your investment in your private vehicle.

That may be because public transport is inflexible. The Gautrain, to take one high-profile example, only runs from 5:30am to about 9:00pm. Most of the park-and-ride facilities operate from 6:00am to 7:00pm. If you need to get somewhere earlier, or you’re staying out later, you have a problem. And if you change your mind halfway through the day and decide to go out for supper or work late, you’re stuck.

If you park your car at one of the Gautrain stations, missing their evening curfew not only means you have to find another means to get home. You also have to find a way to get back to the station in the morning, because they lock up your car for the night. For some obscure reason, parking lots can’t be accessible when the trains aren’t running. And they charge you for the privilege of being denied access to your own vehicle.

Surprisingly, services like Uber and metered taxis will be considered public transport for the purposes of EcoMobility Month. So, is it more eco-friendly to pay for a chauffeur than to drive yourself? As you might imagine, it is not. The IPCC has a separate category for CO2 emissions per distance for taxis, and they cause significantly more emissions than normal passenger vehicles.

I have nothing against mass transport, or against walking or cycling to work, in principle. It is appropriate in many cases, and sometimes it is convenient. But whether you choose these modes of transport ought to be your own choice, dependent on the convenience and cost of the available options. It ought not to be enforced upon you by green elitists even when you do not want it.

In some countries, public transport is fairly tolerable, and cycling or walking is common. I was born in such a country. But that country was also cool, small, flat and located at sea level. Conducting this ‘experiment’ in one of the world’s most sprawling cities, in hilly country, at altitude, in the heat of a South African summer is simple idiocy.

People work all their lives to earn the freedom that personal transport brings. They do this so they won’t have to walk and cycle everywhere like school kids. This initiative looks at the adults who keep the heart of South Africa’s economy throbbing, and proposes treating them like children. It reduces their options, rather than increasing them.

The EcoMobility World Festival is as clear a statement as any that the future envisaged by environmentalists is one in which controls and restrictions have to be enforced on an unwilling population by autocratic measures.

Welcome to eco-tyranny month, Sandton. DM