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EcoMobility: It’s about community, not cars

Dr Thomas Coggin is a senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. He co-ordinates and teaches property law, and his research lies at the intersection of property law and the urban and spatial environment. He is the joint global co-ordinator of the International Research Group on Law & Urban Space, and is a fellow of the Urban Law Centre at Fordham University, New York.

EcoMobility Month is a critical exercise because it places public transport and the spatial environment of our cities at the forefront of what is important. It demonstrates that our preoccupation with the private motor vehicle is not only unsustainable, but that it creates an isolated and divided city.

There is not much that gets middle-class Johannesburg more ruffled than when the state interferes with our beloved private motor vehicles. The e-tolling debacle is an example of how we seek to stringently enforce what we seem to see as a right to a private motor vehicle. Combined with a legacy brought about by an apartheid spatial ideology that has ingrained in us not only a fear of the street, but also a fear of those who use the street, it is unsurprising when Joburgers-who-can-afford-cars object so vociferously to EcoMobility.

Ivo Vegter writes a column (‘Eco-stress in sweltering Sandton’) in which he slates EcoMobility Month as ‘Eco-Tyranny’ – an initiative by the City of Johannesburg that speaks of “green elitism and bureaucratic grandstanding”. No doubt, EcoMobility stems from a global movement against car-centric cities. Often, this movement appears quite ‘fashionable’ for cities to embrace – glossy brochures of vibrant street scenes abound. This, however, is not something to be decried because we do want our cities to be less car-centric, and to provide for safe and vibrant streets that offer efficient and effective access to public transport.

Vegter does not seem to be opposed to this in general, but he does seem to suggest that EcoMobility Month in Johannesburg is a pointless exercise because Joburg is too sprawling, hilly, and hot. Although this is true, it negates the fact that many people nevertheless rely on both public and non-motorised transport to access the city.

In this regard, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory’s (GCRO’s) Mobility in the Gauteng City-Region Report presents interesting facts from their 2011 Quality of Life Survey. Only 33% of respondents interviewed across Gauteng used a private motor vehicle as their main mode of transport for all trip purposes, including work, leisure, and education. In comparison, 58% used a form of public transport for these purposes. Fifty-one percent of school children walked to school, with 15% using a taxi, and 8% using a school bus.

The question that needs to be asked is whether public transport and the spatial environment are as welcoming to the commuter/pedestrian as the motorway is to the driver/car. In this respect, EcoMobility Month is a critical exercise because it places public transport and the spatial environment of our cities at the forefront of what is important. It demonstrates that our preoccupation with the private motor vehicle is not only unsustainable, but that it creates an isolated and divided city. Although using a private motor vehicle is clearly a matter of personal choice, we nevertheless do not interact with each other within the spatial environment when we make this choice. Instead, we stay locked in our ‘tracked motor vehicle’ commuting between our high-walled suburban home and our secured office park.

Many readers may very well be thinking that this is because the street and public transport are unsafe. But, interestingly – and, again, I go back to the GCRO’s research – of those interviewed in Johannesburg, who actually used public transport, only 3% viewed crime/security as the biggest problem. In fact, the biggest problems identified by users were reckless driving (14%), and the high expenses involved in public transport (14%).

EcoMobility will not solve these real problems immediately, but it has the potential of reorienting the discourse around Johannesburg from a city reliant on the car and the high wall, to a city where public transport and a vibrant street environment should be the number one priority.

We – the car-owning public – need to learn not only to embrace public transport and the street, but to demand a better city for all. This means, for example, that we need to ask the Eastgate Shopping Mall why a taxi rank servicing it is hidden behind a grey wall in the furtherest corner of the shopping mall. It means asking why taxis do not have dedicated lanes through the city, or why strict, public standards are not required of drivers to ensure a safe service. It means asking why MetroBus stops do not have information regarding public transport routes, costs, or times. It means asking the Gautrain why bicycles are only allowed on the train in a ‘travel bag’.


Since public transport and the spatial environment are closely intertwined, it also means asking the extent to which we notice and show respect for pedestrians – particularly when failing to yield to a pedestrian at a zebra crossing, or a traffic intersection. It means asking why gated communities are allowed to proliferate across the city-region, which expressly forbid non-residents from walking through public space. It means asking why our universities are designed primarily for the private motor vehicle, with public transport and non-motorised transport infrastructure being, at best, an afterthought.

But, we don’t ask these questions, or at least we fail to provide some critical thought as to their negative effects on the broader spatial environment. Instead, we fall back into our comfort zone of spatial interactions which are mistrustful, aloof, and really quite selfish in the context of a broader, sustainable city. By asking these questions, we accept a vision for Johannesburg that is less dependent on the car, but embracing of a city that provides substantively equal and inclusive access to the opportunities inherent in it, of which public transport and vibrant streets are critical.

My suggestion then to Vegter and other readers who are sceptical of my arguments is to give EcoMobility a go. It will be uncomfortable, primarily because the state of public transport and the spatial environment needs improvement. But, if this is your experience, then complain to the authorities with the same level of tenacity and anger used in protesting against e-tolls. In doing so, we not only improve public transport and the spatial environment for all, but we reshape Johannesburg into a city where our environment and our communities come first – not cars. DM

Thomas Coggin is a lecturer in law at the University of the Witwatersrand. He writes in the areas of property law, legal geography, the right to the city, and constitutional rights and the city. He is an editor and founder of the blog


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Otsile Nkadimeng - photo by Thom Pierce

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