Transport That Binds And Divides



The Cities Collective is a collaborative partnership between Future Cape Town and Urban Times. Working across platforms and across countries, the Cities Collective seeks to create a platform for the discussion, investigation and exploration of cities and urban life around the world.


Cape Town Today

The tragic irony of transport in South Africa is that the infrastructure that is meant to unite was used to divide. During October Transport Month, it is troubling that this statement describes a primary element of the historic legacy of the Apartheid urban construct.

Many South Africans are fatigued hearing the “A” word brandished about indiscriminately, two decades after democratisation. However unlike the political blame-game, spatial imbalances don’t take decades to address, they take generations, if decisive planning is absent. These imbalances weren’t just legislated; they’re literally built into the way South African urban areas function. Thus, we have to confront transport’s role in reinforcing this spatial imbalance and how transport can play a role in uniting, rather than dividing communities.

Freeways and railways have become wedges in Cape Town’s urban fabric, often used to keep different income groups or previously advantaged and disadvantaged communities apart. Look no further than the M5 in the southern suburbs separating Rondebosch from Athlone, or the Metrorail Northern Line dividing Bellville-proper from Elsiesrivier and Ravensmead. Our urban fabric is not yet the tapestry of a cleverly designed quilt; it remains a few arbitrary pieces of fabric held precariously together by mere strands.

Globally, cities with well-functioning and safe public-transit system looks towards, not away from, corridors of movement. In Cape Town there has been a trend to look to the mountain, away from the rail network. This is symptomatic of intrinsic flaws within the urban fabric. As trees congregate to a river, so should be urban density to arteries of movement, it should congregate along it.

There are pockets of hope. Rosebank, Rondebosch, Newlands and Claremont have seen densification taking place along the Metrorail Southern Line. Sustainable cities of the future will need to look towards housing more people proximal to transit corridors. The days of the automobile are numbered; neither our roads, nor our atmosphere can handle the consequences of one-human-one-car. These southern suburbs have seen numerous apartment and mixed-use developments spring up between Main and Campground Roads, giving it an increasingly London-neighbourhood feel. So, why is this trend happening here and not elsewhere?

Source: Dom Edwards

Source: Dom Edwards

Rail Transit

Two factors are at play. Firstly, the Metrorail Southern Line is arguably, but widely perceived, as the safest train line in Cape Town. Secondly, urban regeneration and management initiatives, like the CCID (Claremont Central Improvement District) are well-established.

This simple equation highlights what is needed: Corridors of improvement and movement. Three interventions are required for this to happen: One, good public-transit management; two, good urban-management (often in the form of a private-public-partnership PPP) and three, appropriate zoning.

Good public-transit management is possible, as Cape Town’s MyCiti seems to be proving, with even Johannesburg’s ReaVaya getting the thumbs up. However, not much good can be said for PRASA. Although plans of massive rolling-stock replacement are on the horizon, most complain of lack of security, old and dilapidated trains and unreliable services. It is international best-practice that urban transit is only effective when it’s fully integrated. Having a national parastatal administrating a city’s transport needs is illogical. Metrorail should be ceded to Transport for Cape Town and integrated with MyCiti.

Cape Town has a proven track-record when it comes to good urban management. The Cape Town Partnership is a shining example of an entity promoting a safe, clean, caring city with a deep place-making ideology. We have a ubiquitous issue in South Africa where pockets of excellence exist in an ocean of malaise. Such initiatives need to become more the rule, than the exception. Obviously, Special Rating Areas (SRA’s or CID’s) need to be tailored to the needs and resource capacity of the respective communities. A clone of the Cape Town SRA will not be an apt fit for an Athlone SRA, for example. In most areas, the basics like safety and cleanliness are paramount.

Appropriate zoning is required. We need to abandon the one-family-one-building-one-garden urban dogma. Sprawl inevitably lowers living standards and low-density residential does not equate to quality of life. Zoning needs to be seen in three dimensions. Zoning is not only horizontal, but vertical diversity of zoning creates neighbourhoods where live, work and play can coexist. This too, addresses bringing economic activity closer to residents. Transit corridors have be zoned appropriately to facilitate densification.

This three-tiered intervention will result in more people of greater ethnic diversity, living lose to the vital arteries of the urban body. These interventions will make these corridors more attractive to property investment, ensuring cohabitation of economic opportunity, residents and leisure activities. Foremost for the South African context, it facilitates integration along the very corridors that historically, aimed to keep people apart.

Northern Suburb Revolution

The Voortrekker Road Corridor has made news lately, with the formation of the Greater Tygerberg Partnership (GTP). The aim in a nutshell, is the creation of a Corridor of Improvement and Movement along the forgotten Voortrekker Road, from Salt River to Bellville, similar to densification-and-transit interventions seen in award-winning green cities like Curitiba.

This corridor has already constituted the GTP private-public-partnership, to facilitate improved urban management. The City of Cape Town must ensure appropriate zoning for the corridor. MyCiti BRT is bound to use Voortrekker Road in their final northern expansion phase. PRASA presents the biggest question mark, as rail-transit is vital to the success of this corridor, in ensuring connectivity and allowing neighbourhoods to look inwards towards the corridor, not outwards towards the N1.

An effective Corridors of Improvement and Movement strategy for Cape Town would render WesCape and Philippi developments redundant. These two controversial proposals, beyond the urban-edge, will invariably exacerbate urban sprawl, perpetuating the economic-activity-to-residential-disconnect paradigm. A densification model for the city would provide for Cape Town’s housing needs for the foreseeable future, with the GTP indicating 300,000-750,000 new residents could be accommodated within their corridor till 2040. Currently, Cape Town’s density is still 3-times less than that of London.

According to density statistics, it’s not the townships which need density-intervention, it’s the traditional suburbs. Suburban residents should not fear this, as cities synonymous with high living standards, like London and Paris, are much denser than Cape Town. This too is a necessary if MyCiti BRT is to be financially viable, making the goal of having each Capetonian within 500m of public-transit, obtainable.


Mass Integration Through Transit Innovation

Mokena Makeka is one of Cape Town’s bright, young urbanism and architecture stars. He has proposed some radical urban interventions from Cape Town to Salt River, by burying the rail lines below ground. Expensive, yes; prohibitively so, no: The developable land reclaimed from the Culemborg Transnet site would be of immense value to the city, due to its proximal location to the urban core, not only monetarily, but also socio-economically.

This area is already the de facto number one transit corridor, with all rail lines and MyCiti BRT trunk routes located herein, but lacks the land for development. Thus, the main artery to the city’s heart remains inaccessible to residents, businesses and development.

The political rhetoric would have us believe Cape Town is the nation’s most segregated city. However, as Adrian Firth illustrates, all South African cities are beset with the same problem; no dot-map of demographic distribution, tells a story of mass integration.

Once more, pockets of excellence exist. These areas are directly adjacent to the mass transit intervention in question. Woodstock, Salt River, Observatory, Maitland and Brooklyn are particularly well integrated. Freeing up land at the Culemborg site, would facilitate mass integration on a revolutionary scale, proximal to economic opportunity in the central city. Doing so in an already well-integrated part of the city, as well as adjacent to District Six resettlement, would eliminate the Apartheid urban construct.

Racial distribution in Cape Town by self-identification in 2011 census (Source: Adrian Frith)

Branding Intervention

Lest we forget, we live in a globalised world. Providing a nice bus or train is not enough anymore. A strong brand bolsters loyalty and fashion fosters attractiveness. South Africa has a youthful population and young professionals will become increasingly prominent in our urban scene. The attractiveness of a transit brand cannot be underestimated. London’s Underground and New York’s Subway, are not only for function, but have transcended into fashion. It is not only practical to be on the system, it’s the “in-thing” to do.

MyCiti has done this to a certain degree, with their feeder buses often being described as cute and sexy. MyCiti’s branding was originally questioned, but it seems to have grown on Capetonians. The MyConnect cards are a sleek, modern solution for an integrated, multi-modal problem. Once again, PRASA’s Metrorail is the weak link. A train is still seen as dingy, dangerous, ‘governmental’ and transport for those who cannot afford a car. Integration into Transport for Cape Town could fix this stone-age image and modal disconnect, provided that service-levels are addressed simultaneously.

Using public-transit needs to become a convenience and an experience. Seldom does a tourist venture into Paris without wanting to experience the Metro. We too, should feel this way about using our infrastructure.

Urbanity Within Transit

Stations are often soulless spaces with no sense-of-place, making commuters feel insecure and uneasy. Additional security at our stations would change the way commuters behave. Therefore, stations need security and aesthetic interventions, enabling vibrant activities to take place therein. This integrates transit infrastructure into the wider urban fabric. We cannot expect neighbourhoods to look towards public-transit, if public-transit stations act as single-purpose clinical islands.

If we are to see logarithmic ridership increases, so we need to increase the convenience thereof. Retail, formal and informal, as well as structured informal entertainment, should form part of our stations and the urban journey experience. People use public-transit for convenience. The more services and essential retail that can be included between origin-A and destination-B, the more convenient the journey. However, without good security, decent lighting and aesthetically acceptable spaces, this aim will remain elusive.

The urban environment around transit stations will seriously affect ridership. Park & Ride is a short-term solution to the ailment of private vehicles, with the cure being origin-to-destination 100% NMT or public-transit usage. Unsafe streets, either through high crime-rates and/or hazardous for pedestrian passage, will stifle public-transport’s success. A businessperson is not going to use MyCiti or PRASA (even if both are up-to-standard), if getting home after dark means running a gauntlet of either muggers or speeding cars on dark roadways.


Looking at Transport Month cannot be done in isolation, as addressing two great urban needs: Equal access to opportunity and safe and efficient transport, needs holistic and sweeping urban interventions across the board. South Africa’s cities are inherently fractured. It has been proven that transport infrastructure can be used to unite or divide. We need to do the former and we need to bring all Capetonian classes along.

Closing with the much paraphrased quote of Bogotá’s ex-mayor, Enrique Penalosa, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”

About Andres de Wet

Passionate about all things urban, political and developmental. Have championed numerous projects, including the proposed Breede Valley Partnership, managed the local chamber of commerce and general contributor to local tourism associations. Been intricately involved in rural empowerment and agricultural sustainability through FairTrade. Worked in the USA as a lead architectural designer from 2006-2008. Although currently self-employed, maintain a keen interest in the public realm and the Cape’s march towards excellence.