OPINION: Sandton EcoMobility Month - more ambition needed

On Monday morning the Sandton CBD returned to normal, after a month in which the City of Johannesburg flirted with changing the transport behaviour of the people who work in the city. As part of an international initiative, passenger cars were blocked from using several lanes in and out of the area, contra-flow lanes were handed over to public transport, and park-and-ride facilities were created. One of the main aims of EcoMobility Month was to get people to think before using their cars, and change how they moved about the city. This was good a start.

Early in October, I pointed out that, as a cyclist, I was always amazed at how much space was wasted on our roads, and how many of the tin cans that blocked road lanes typically carried only one person. I was reminded about this, again, last week, riding along 11th Avenue in Parkmore. I was moving quite quickly (as quickly as gravity would allow), and savouring the flavours of emissions from the long queue of vehicles. So many of them were SSUVs. What is an SSUV you ask? A stationary SUV. All this was supposed to change, over the long term, to make the roads more accessible to cyclists. EcoMobility Month was meant to be the start of this change.

When the idea was first mooted, it seemed that some roads in Sandton would actually be closed off to passenger cars. There was excited talk of pop-up restaurants on the roads; that pop-up cycle lanes would rule the roost; that there would, actually, be a village atmosphere in Sandton; that walking and cycling would be king and queen, and passenger cars relegated to the role of court jester by barricades and street signs. That was not quite what happened.

It seems that the city actually got cold feet, or met with too much opposition to do much. What was originally seen as blocked roads became blocked lanes, and the passenger car dominated most spaces. This is a pity, because at the start of the 'festival', during the first week of school holidays, there really was a wonderful sense of community among cyclists in Sandton. It is difficult to describe the freedom of having cycling space, and not having to watch out for cars. Even better were the social interactions you could have; it was easy to stop your bike for a chat. Sandton being Sandton, I would bump into an investment banker in the morning and a well-known lawyer in the evening. It was the kind of village setting that would be hard to envisage in Sandton during its normal state. It must have been even better for pedestrians.

What was most disappointing was that what had initially been sold as 'pop-up' bicycle lanes did not materialise. A ribbon around a tree or two along a side-road doth not a cycle lane make. When queried about this, officials responded that the 'lanes' were actually just suggested routes. Well, that's not what the brochure said. While one can understand the city's reluctance to invest large amounts of money, a little bit of paint is surely not too much to ask. Even if it did not cover a whole route in and out of Sandton, it would at least give a cyclist first claim to a small patch of road.

If you had to ask what it takes to make a cyclist actually really enjoy riding out of Sandton, the answer, last week, was Julius Malema. When Malema led his Economic Freedom Fighters on a march to the JSE last week, the lawyers, bankers and shoppers of Sandton considered the prospect of so many poor black people on their turf as just too much to bear. Many offices closed early, and as a result, moving about the streets was like a dream.

All of that said, where the city succeeded, and really made a difference, was in the number of people directing and moving traffic. There were metro police everywhere; directing cars, watching out for pedestrians, and generally saturating the place. It was wonderful, and a real lesson in how simply flooding a place with visible police can make a difference. It felt so much safer to be walking and riding around Sandton knowing that at almost every intersection there was someone in a blue uniform keeping an eye on things.

It's been said before, but it's worth saying again, a human being, and especially a co-ordinated team of human beings, can direct traffic through an intersection far more efficiently than a robot. They are able to watch patterns, judge ebbs and flows, and generally get cars moving quicker. Surely, surely, it is time to look at the evidence that must have been gathered throughout the month, and start applying the lessons learned. While there is scope to grow the Outsurance Pointsmen Project, this is an initiative in which the police could, and perhaps should, take the lead.

A bit more training for the people actually involved would have been useful. For instance, there were gaps between the yellow plastic barriers for bikes to run through, but so often a police officer or a marshal was standing in the gap. Three times in a row I had to ask the same officer to move out of the way, before I went smashing into something. It is human to stand in gaps, we all do it, but a bit of training beforehand would have been useful.

Traffic patterns are not divorced from major problems in our society, like general lawlessness on the country's roads. At a recent panel discussion hosted by the city about commuter cycling, I presented a photograph of a mini-bus changing lanes without indicating. There is nothing more terrifying for a cyclist than vehicles making sudden lanes changes, especially if they do not use their indicators. Every single day, at the same intersection (turning right from Grayston at the Benmore Shopping Centre), a driver will do that. In this instance, the taxi driver and I had a brief conversation. He was under the impression that I did not have a right to photograph him breaking the law. Despite knowing what I was about to do, his masculinity did not allow him to stop crossing lanes without care or concern.

This often happens while a police car is parked just across the road. Do those police officers do anything about it? Not a chance. After pointing this out (at a city event nogal), there was some gratification from seeing an officer on duty at the intersection itself, stopping drivers and hauling them off. This lasted for only two days, after which everything went back to the usual lawlessness.

The City of Johannesburg can pat itself on the back for one big thing. They started something. People who work in the nearby buildings talk about how their bike parking lot was nearly full for the first time during October. Normally, I would see one other commuter cyclist a week. During October I probably saw at least one every day. This means that the idea of moving around on a bicycle is slowly making headway. There has been more discussion about this issue than before. What is now clear, is that almost everyone now seem to realise, and hopefully accepts, that there has to be change. The status quo, with more and more cars coming into congested roads, simply cannot hold.

It is easy to apportion blame for the congestion on the roads, but foresight and courage are necessary. Gauteng transport MEC Ismail Vadi told a story of how Jack van der Merwe, who was instrumental in making the Gautrain happen, once put forward requests to city planners, in the 1980s, to make more space available for roads in Sandton. At the time he was told it would never happen, and that Sandton would, at the most, stay peri-urban. How wrong they were about that, and many other things, actually. What it does mean is that we simply do not have much space to work with. We have to, therefore, use it as effectively as we can. Allocating almost all the commuter space to cars carrying just one person is not using space very effectively.

The city is, nonetheless, very much on the right track with the park-and-ride system. Some of these are going to stay in place, and it seems there's been hardly any negative feedback about them. It is certainly worth trying it around a shopping centre near you.

Many cities around the world have changed the directions of lanes at peak times. Rio de Janeiro has done it, as have cities around the United States, and there is no reason why we cannot do in our most congested city spaces. It would relieve pressure on the roads, and allow the back roads to be used only by people leaving Sandton, as opposed entering the area. It should, at the very least, be tried.

I can't help but wonder if the only thing that held this project back from being a complete success was a lack of ambition. City officials should have the courage of their convictions and block roads to cars. Companies in the areas should apply for permits, and justify why they should be issued to their employees. There can be exceptions for delivery vehicles, or for employees who, for various reasons, are unable to walk into Sandton. The city can create shaded areas for pedestrians in the space that is freed-up, and invite restaurants to use the space for fun, and give Sandton a lively vibe. It would, of course, also help to get out the paint, and designate more space for cyclists.

_This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to _ www.dailymaverick.co.za _for more comment and analysis. _

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes