Our Cities, Ourselves

Our Cities, Ourselves is an exhibition sponsored by the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy. It features ten cities that “have proven to be leaders in innovation in sustainable transport and are fertile ground for further transformation.” On my trip, I have visited three of these cities: Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, and Buenos Aires.

The exhibition was in South Africa during my stay there, but I waited to visit it until it opened at Argentina’s Museum of Architecture and Design. It was especially fun to read about the African cities I had gotten to know in an exhibit in South America. Speaking about the exhibition’s cities when it was in South Africa, the executive manager for planning and strategy at the Joburg Development Agency, Sharon Lewis, noted, “Nearly all of the cities are in developing nations, because this is where most urban growth will happen over the next 20 years. They have the opportunity to learn from and leapfrog over the mistakes made by developed nations, particularly the over-dependence of cars in the United States.”

Our Cities, Ourselves explores the use of bicycles, public space, and public transportation as tools to combat overdependence on cars in cities (PDF booklet highlighting these tools here). A video of the exhibit (in Spanish) is here.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the exhibit in Argentina was a lecture by Columbia sociologist Saskia Sassen, who grew up in Buenos Aires. She shared her thoughts on transportation’s role in bringing about a “tipping point” in the fight for global sustainability. There are important “microprocesses” involved with transportation, and “we don’t need the big flagship project.” This was an important perspective to hear, especially given the publicity and flagship status cities tend to give to BRT projects. She also mentioned the prevalence of “sites in the city of non-voluntary immobility,” a phrasing I found helpful. A video of her remarks (in Spanish) is here.

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher 2

Car Guards

Bright Continent (via Andrew Boraine) has a striking photo feature about the car guards who work on Cape Town’s Long Street. Many of them come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “Most have lived along the river that feeds the heart of darkness. Now they trawl Cape Town’s brook of booze.”

I met a number of immigrants from the DRC, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and other African countries who were overqualified for their jobs in South Africa. Sam, a university graduate from Kenya who moved to Masiphumelele, was working as a house cleaner to pay the bills for his son’s medical care.  Many immigrants face intense xenophobia, which exploded in a series of 2008 attacks.


Metrorail Cape Town

Cape Town's Metrorail Stations (by Wwwdigi (Own work) (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons)

Cape Town has historically relied on extensive commuter rail infrastructure to meet commuters’ demands.  The 118 Metrorail stations across the region serve 151 million passengers annually. Of Cape Town commuters who use public transport, 56% rely on Metrorail. Gauteng (Johannesburg and Pretoria), KwaZulu-Natal (Durban), and the Eastern Cape (Port Elizabeth and East London) also have Metrorail commuter rail service. Despite the historical importance of rail, the last few decades have seen continued bureaucratic restructuring, chronic underfunding, overcrowding, and severe delays that threaten the viability of commuter rail service in South Africa.

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher

At a national level, South Africa has a well-developed rail system, with the 10th most trackage of any country in the world. Commuter service began operating in 1890, with a train between Braamfontein and Boksburg. Twenty years later, South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H) was created as the governmental agency to oversee this growing logistics network and manage the growing passenger demand. Ridership continued to increase through the first half of the 20th Century. The implementation of the Group Areas Act (apartheid) in 1952 “exacerbated the situation immediately, since it forced the Black working class population further onto the periphery of the urban areas, and further from their places of work” (From The People Shall Move). National demand peaked at the end of the 1970s, with nearly 500 million passengers being transported annually at a R250 million annual loss. In an attempt to reduce the amount of subsidies required, SAR&H was reorganized and renamed South African Transport Services (SATS).

In 1990, SATS was reorganized again; Metrorail (a subsidiary of freight operator Transnet) was contracted for operations in Cape Town and Johannesburg, while management was transferred to the newly formed South African Rail Commuter Corporation (SARCC). In the decade that followed, train usage declined dramatically, due to the 1989 deregulation of the taxi industry and its subsequent expansion, as well as an epidemic of political violence on trains. As ridership decreased, operational subsidies boomed, reaching R600 million per year by the mid 1990s. Capital expenditures were largely neglected in the preceding decade by the security-focused apartheid government. Except for a rolling stock refurbishment program initiated by SARCC in 1994, the new democratic government similarly ignored rail capital expenditures, favoring more immediate social spending over long term rail investment. In 2006, Metrorail was transferred from Transnet to SARCC. Finally, in 2008 SARCC was renamed the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). The agency inherited a fleet of 4638 coaches that today has an average age of 40 years.

PRASA must address this legacy of underinvestment while coping with passenger demand that is again growing. Between 2001 and 2008, annual passenger rail trips in Gauteng (the province that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg) increased 22%, to 310 million. Cape Town has seen a 17% increase in commuters over past 2 years. The February 17 edition of the Cape Times carried the front-page headline “Road to Nowhere?” and highlighted delays in the city’s BRT plan as well as problems facing Metrorail: “Cape Town’s creaking rail service desperately needs an extra 29 trains, at a cost of R3 billion, to get the commuter service operating properly.”

The shortage of train consists leads to cancellations and abysmal on-time performance. In the first quarter of 2011, one in four peak-period Cape Town Metrorail Trains was late. On the Cape Flats and Simon’s Town lines, nearly 5% of trains were canceled.

Metrorail Delays

Metrorail Delays, compiled from Metrorail'=s Blits Newsletter

In addition to historical underinvestment and the resulting obsolescence of equipment, persistent vandalism limits the availability of rolling stock. As the previously mentioned Cape Times article reported, “[Metrorail regional manager] Matya said the cost of replacing rolling stock and infrastructure over the last 12 months had amounted to R5.6 million, excluding the cost of labor. Stolen cables had to be replaced in 54 coaches at a cost of R2.16m. The 88m of copper cable in one train carriage would not fetch more than R100 as scrap metal, but cost R40,000 to replace.” Ongoing tampering with signaling and switching equipment has not provided any financial reward for vandals, but it causes hours of delays for commuters. Indeed, it seems the root cause of this vandalism is not the financial allure of scrap metal; it is instead symptomatic of alienation from and anger towards Metrorail that many residents feel.

In township areas, there is a sense of lingering resentment towards the rail system. It was used as an instrument of apartheid, both transporting workers from distant townships into the centers of power (which are no longer the true city centers) and creating barriers within the townships themselves. Metrorail staff still treat passengers poorly. For example, during one of my trips on the Simon’s Town line, fare inspectors asked one of the passengers for his ticket. He replied that the ticket office at Valsbaai where he had boarded was closed; when this is the case (quite often), passengers are to buy their tickets upon disembarking at the main Cape Town Station. The fare inspectors insisted that the ticket office should have been open at that time, and they told him that he would have to disembark at Retreat Station to buy a ticket. He refused, because doing so would require waiting 30 minutes for the following train. He argued exasperatedly, “I’ll buy my ticket at Cape Town, but I am not going to miss my appointment – it’s your fault the ticket office wasn’t open, not mine.” The fare inspectors escalated the situation with a threat of forcing him off. They only relented when another passenger showed them a picture he had just snapped of the shuttered Valsbaai ticket office (probably anticipating such a confrontation with fare inspectors). I could tell the passengers were deeply unhappy with this mistreatment. Fortunately the situation I experienced was defused. A similar situation in March led some Johannesburg passengers to light their train on fire.

Passengers also endure intense overcrowding (see the picture at the previous link), especially on the Khaylitsha/Chris Hani branch of the Central Line, which serves some of the region’s poorest and most densely populated areas and accounts for about 150,000 daily passenger boardings (about four times the daily ridership of Southern California’s entire Metrolink system). As Cape Town’s Draft Integrated Transport Plan describes, “In the morning peak, many passengers aboard the train to Cape Town at Nonkqubela and Nolungile travelling in the direction of Khayelitsha in order to secure a seat. They remain seated when the train turns around at Khayelitsha, thus distorting the number of passengers boarding at all three of these stations.”

Passengers are further incensed by Metrorail’s notorious delays. Cape Town’s Central Line had the worst on-time performance in the system in the first quarter of 2011, due partly to vandalism. In recent protests, the chair of the Concerned Commuter’s Organization of South Africa claimed that Metrorail’s chronic delays put workers’ jobs on the line.

Metrorail thus faces somewhat of a downward spiral. Riders are frustrated with poor service and unfair treatment. When they respond destructively, through vandalism etc., delays increase and service worsens, leading to more frustrated riders. Last month, South Africa’s national government approved a massive rolling stock recapitalization plan. From Railway Gazette International:

PRASA hopes to have the first of 6 600 new vehicles entering service in 2015, with deliveries running to 2030. Of these, 4 600 vehicles will be formed as 718 EMUs for Metrorail commuter services, while the remaining 2 000 will be hauled coaches for Shosholoza Meyl’s inter-city fleet. Around 97 new electric and 27 diesel locomotives will also be needed.

These new trains cannot come quickly enough. As the recapitalization announcement was being made, protesters were calling for Transnet to take operations back from PRASA:

“The people are tired of Metrorail and Prasa,” said Concerned Commuters’ Organisation of SA chairman Bongani Ntuli. Time-keeping and safety were major concerns for commuters, who got to work late every day…Ntuli said robbery was rife on trains and that women, who were sometimes delayed while returning home at night, faced being raped. “We will not allow this to happen to our women. Their safety is important.”

The 2003 National Household Transportation Survey found that 64% of households were dissatisfied with safety on the walk to train stations. Safety is also important on the trains themselves. Earlier today, 250 people were injured when two Metrorail trains crashed in Soweto.

The National Ministry of Transport’s rail recapitalization plan is an ambitious step in the right direction, but it is only one piece in alleviating Metrorail’s woes. Staff training and upgrades around station areas would address concerns of mistreatment and safety. Ultimately, riders need to feel a sense of ownership and engagement. A concerted effort to formulate transport values for Metrorail would help ensure that, when the new trains start to arrive in a few years, riders and staff will care for them out of appreciation them rather than burn them out of frustration.

Karoo Road Trip

Pictures from my weekend road trip to the Karoo Desert, which lies to the north and east of Cape Town:

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher

2010: The Pedestrian and Transit Legacy of the World Cup

After being announced as the host nation for the 2010 World Cup in 2004, South Africa embarked on a journey of transportation transformation. The looming tournament helped fast-track a number of infrastructure projects, and the nation largely met the challenges of moving hundreds of thousands of spectators: KwaZulu-Natal opened its new King Shaka International Airport a month before the first kickoff, Gauteng’s Gautrain (more soon) was able to transport fans from O.R. Tambo International Airport to Sandton, and Jo’burg’s Rea Vaya helped clear Soccer City ahead of FIFA benchmark times.

In addition to these flagship projects, the World Cup (or simply 2010, as South Africans metonymically refer to the tournament) impelled some subtler changes in South Africa’s transportation landscape. A prime example is Cape Town’s Fan Walk, a corridor of pedestrian improvements between the city’s train station and Green Point Stadium. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, planners were completely overwhelmed by the massive turnout and positive response from both visitors and locals to this new walking infrastructure in the city; Capetonians have continued to use the fan walk for local soccer games, demonstrations, and (like me) the finish line festivities of the Cape Argus Cycle Tour.

The prodigious success of the Fan Walk demonstrates the power of walking as a “microprocess,” a term sociologist Saskia Sassen used recently in describing the potential of bike lanes (at a talk in Buenos Aires for the Our Cities Ourselves exhibit about transportation). As she said, to make global cities more sustainable “we don’t need the big flagship projects.” Indeed, the small infrastructure investment of the Fan Walk, hardly mentioned by city officials before the tournament, has served to catalyze and coordinate thousands of “pedestrian speech acts” (de Certeau) that collectively work to retake urban space from cars and reverse years of social division. The transportation legacy of 2010 is not just physical infrastructure, but, as Andrew Boraine writes, “attitudinal changes” as well.

It was only six years ago that architect Jan Gehl observed, “Pedestrians in Cape Town are a hunted race.” The World Cup helped with many improvements, but work remains to be done.

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher


Newlands Cricket Ground

Newlands Cricket Ground

At Newlands Cricket Ground, one of the most beautiful in the world with its sunset views of Table Mountain, I watched the Cape Cobras open their Standard Bank Pro20 Season. Twenty20 cricket is the shortest version (or, as a South African explained it to me, “the most bastardized version”), allowing a match to be completed in one evening (like baseball). The match I watched versus the Titans was a nail-biter; with only three balls (pitches) remaining, the Cobras needed 13 to win. In these last three balls, Morkel hit two sixes (home runs) and a single, leading the Cobras to a five wicket victory with zero balls remaining.

I had plenty of opportunities to watch more cricket (on television), since the ICC Cricket World Cup was taking place while I was in South Africa. While the one day international format was understandably paced more slowly, I found the sport (even in its less bastardized form) engaging. The tie between England and India and Ireland’s huge upset victory over England were both quite exciting.

Jammie Shuttle

I started my time in South Africa by sitting in on a ten-day seminar about globalization, poverty, and the environment. This seminar’s focus on the country’s economic disparities, environmental challenges, and history of apartheid spatial planning served as an excellent introduction for my time in South Africa. It expanded my thinking about issues linked to transportation; for example, as one lecturer noted, the long commute times of South Africans who rely on minibus taxis tend to discourage home-cooked meals, undermining markets for fresh produce in township areas and increasing urban food insecurity. I learned a lot from the field trip focused on housing and water infrastructure in the Cape Town area. The seminar also helped me learn to appreciate the importance of cricket and braaing in South Africa.

To reach campus from the house I was staying at in Kenilworth, I relied on the University of Cape Town’s Jammie Shuttle. The free service’s different routes connect UCT’s campus, located on the slopes of Table Mountain, to nearby residential areas and public transport interchanges. When the Jammie Shuttle was inaugurated in 2002, the Mowbray/Claremont Main Road sector of the minibus taxi industry feared the new shuttles would be competing unfairly, so they blockaded routes and threatened violence. Successful negotiations between the University and minibus taxi representatives prevented serious problems.

Livingstone Railway Museum

On the last of my four days in Zambia, I took a guided tour of the Livingstone Railway Museum. With the completion of the Victoria Falls Bridge in 1905, Livingstone became an important transit point in colonial East Africa. It was intriguing to see some of the remnants of this time. From Wikipedia:

In the mid 1890s Rhodesian Railways had reached Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia spurring industrial development there, fuelled by the coal mines at Hwange just 110 km (68 mi) south-east of Mosi-oa-Tunya. The railway was extended to Hwange for the coal, but Rhodes’ vision was to keep pushing north to extend the British Empire, and he would have built it to Cairo if he could. In 1904 the railway reached the Falls on the southern side and construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge started. Too impatient to wait for its completion, Rhodes had the line from Livingstone to Kalomo built and operations started some months in advance of the bridge using a single locomotive which was conveyed in pieces by temporary cableway across the gorge next to the bridge building site.[5]

With the new Bridge open in September 1905, Livingstone boomed and the British South Africa Company moved the capital of the territory there in 1907.[4] In 1911 the company merged the territory with North-Eastern Rhodesia as Northern Rhodesia.

Livingstone prospered from its position as a gateway to trade between north and south sides of the Zambezi, as well as from farming in the Southern Province and commercial timber production from forests to its north-west. A number of colonial buildings were erected which still stand.[3] Although the capital was moved to Lusaka in 1935 to be closer to the economic heartland of the Copperbelt, industries based on timber, hides, tobacco, cotton (including textiles) and other agricultural products grew up.

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher