Ecomobility World Festival-Of Pies, Skies and the Pursuit of Sustainable Solutions

2015-09-29 10:30

The City of Joburg, led by the affable and highly ambitious Mayor, Councillor Parks Tau are about to score yet another, entirely unnecessary, political own goal.  The Ecomobility World Festival which will be hosted in Johannesburg over the course of the month of October 2015 will result in many road closures, car restrictions and route diversions in Sandton, the economic heartland of the city. This, we are told, is to encourage people to rather walk, cycle or use public transport. The City will again demonstrate how out of touch with reality it is. Visitors to the Festival’s website are greeted with the Mayor’s proud declaration: “The Festival will demonstrate to the world that an ecomobile future is possible and that public transport, walking and cycling can be accessible, safe and attractive”. In Johannesburg, in 2015. Seriously.

This impending fiasco reminds one of the equally ambitious proposal by the then Gauteng MEC for Public Transport, Roads and Works Ignatius Jacobs and former Finance MEC Paul Mashatile regarding a plan to build, in partneship with a Malaysian consortium, a R12bn Monorail Project in June 2007. This 44km project was a plan to directly to connect Soweto to the Joburg CBD and was also meant to spread to Ekurhuleni and Tshwane. The then transport minister Jeff Radebe claimed to have been notified of the project through the media although Mashatile and Jacobs claimed to have secured the backing of the then mayor Clr Amos Masondo and Radebe himself. Perhaps we should return to the government’s approach to this stillborn idea. Silence.

Sadly there are many other examples of less than optimal solutions to the transport problems of the city and the country. Most of the challenges we are grappling with are born of the nasty legacy of Apartheid-era spatial planning that was premised on delivering good infrastructure to the select few while keeping the previously disadvantaged on the periphery, only to act as a labour reserve that brings a flow of services in the morning and is pushed out in the late afternoon. Sadly we have not seen any significant change in that approach. South Africa and Johannesburg in particular, remains a place where the first and third world co-exist without ever really intersecting.

When the Gautrain was launched to much fanfare in 2010 after many delays, many raised legitimate questions as to whether the project was the most effective way of dealing with the connectivity issues between the OR Tambo, the Johannesburg CBD and Sandton. The cost of about R26,5bn was a thorny issue for many, especially when comparisons were made with how much had been spent(or not spent) on Metrorail which carries hundreds of thousands of working class passengers every day versus the few thousand middle class users of the Gautrain. Many years ago, the Metrorail trains that I depended on for transport to get me to school were unreliable, often ran late, got delayed for up to an hour in between stations and were horribly overcrowded. They were a perfect hunting ground for pickpockets and gropers. We are now in 2015. Nothing much has changed.

The Taxi Recapitalisation Programme which was announced in 1999 was intended to professionalise the taxi industry while improving the safety of millions of passengers though the scrapping of unroadworthy taxis which even at the best were death traps with no passenger seatbelts or any other safety equipment. Fast forward to August 2014, the government claimed to have scrapped 60 000 taxis yet we still see many “Zola Budds” being rebuilt and returned to the road after many a high speed crash. When asked for a definitive answer on whether the programme has been successful, we are told that “more clarity” is needed on the benefits and operations of the programme. To compound issues, the government has allowed the country to be flooded with substandard Chinese taxis which after 3 months of operation look worse for wear than the 15 year old Zola Budd taxis they were supposed to be replacing.

We don’t even have time to speak of the much despised “e-word” solution championed by Nazir Alli and his band of truth-benders whose “facts” trumpeting their “success” are repeatedly rebuffed by Wayne Duvenhage’s OUTA.

When the Festival has come and gone and we are done pretending that it was a “success”, will we have a meaningful discussion on the real issues we face around transport? Have we had a reduction in injuries or fatalities as a result of the taxi recapitalisation system? Has anyone seen the seatbelts on the new taxis being used? I haven’t. And what of the promised expenditure on the improvement of the Metrorail? Has that money been gobbled up by Gautrain subsidies? Has there been any success in alleviating the overcrowding that has beset the Gautrain over peak periods or will the only solution be the repeated price hikes? Will we see an end to the daily episodes of “spot-all-broken-down-Putco-buses-on-your-way-to-work show? Will we get to fix traffic lights by any chance?

Will we still be trying our best to not drive behind a Metrobus lest we be temporarily blinded by a thick cloud of diesel smoke they are so well known for? Will we have a look at the spatial patterns in the Sandton CBD and the future effects of the new skyscrapers that are being erected all over?

During the month of October, when we’re counting how many cars we haven’t seen in Sandton we should perhaps spare a thought for the lawyers, bankers, consultants and other workers in the Sandton CBD who’s work requires them to be constantly on the road or working late at night when tuk-tuks, buses and taxis have long disappeared.

*Akani writes in his personal capacity

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