Johannesburg mayor: We must ‘change the way we move around the city’

This month, Johannesburg is turning Sandton, its major commercial district, into an experiment in urban mobility. Cars are banned from some streets and restricted on others, forcing many of the people who work in the area to commute by transit, bicycle or foot.

The event is the second iteration of the EcoMobility World Festival. The first such event was held two years ago in Suwon, South Korea (read Citiscope’s urban innovation feature which assesses the legacy of that experiment). The global network of local governments concerned about sustainability, known as ICLEI, was involved in both festivals.

With the Johannesburg event still in full swing, I caught up with Mayor Mpho Parks Tau by email to find out more about what the city is trying to achieve this month. I’ve lightly edited his responses below for length and clarity.

Christopher Swope: What does “ecomobility” mean to you?

Mpho Parks Tau: The concept of ecomobility is very important for a city like Johannesburg, which aspires to be a world class African city amidst urbanization and climate-change challenges.

We as a city have already begun shaping the future of Johannesburg through well-planned transport arteries that we have named the “Corridors of Freedom.” These are necessary to link interchanges and focus on mixed-use developments with high density accommodation that is supported by office buildings, retail developments and opportunities for leisure and recreation. This way, the people of Johannesburg will live closer to their workplaces and be able to live, work and play without having to use private motorized transport to do any of these.

Safe, affordable and convenient buses, cycling and pedestrian activity need to eventually replace the carbon-burning private vehicles to preserve our environment for generations to come. And this can only happen if we all change the way we move around the city.

Q: Is “ecomobility” something you talk about with citizens, or is it more a concept for the global stage?

A: By no means is ecomobility a mere concept showcase for the global stage, but more of a sustainable solution that Johannesburg is looking into to resolve our congestion challenges.

The month-long festival presents us with an opportunity to test-drive if it is possible to transform itself into an ecomobile city. So far, the public feedback indicates that this is possible — 400 cars are already recorded in our park and ride facilities [where drivers transfer to public transit]. We have also seen an almost 8-percent increase in the users of the Gautrain, a commuter-rail service.

Long before the EcoMobility Festival, the city had begun engaging with various stakeholders to transform our spatial design and transport system. These engagements led to the launch of the very successful Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit system, which is currently being extended to all corners of the city. We have also recently launched 88 green Metrobuses in support of ecomobility and more will be released in 2016.

The same is true with cycling and walking. Some Johannesburg people have already been walking and cycling for many years — be it for commuting purposes or recreational. A perfect example is the 10,000 people who walk between Alexandra and Sandton daily. [Alexandra is a poor area adjacent to Sandton.]

Q: Much of the messaging around the EcoMobility Festival talks about the value of “socially inclusive” transportation. What does that mean in Johannesburg’s context?

A: This means the availability of the same quality of public transport for all Johannesburg residents, which is both equally and easily accessible, as well as affordable.

This also means bringing equity on the city’s streets for all road users that will ensure that all people — regardless of class — can walk on our streets and feel safe while doing it.

This is exactly what Johannesburg is working towards with our spatial transformation efforts through the Corridors of Freedom program and the revamp of our transport network.

Q: What lasting legacies do you expect to come from this festival?

A: The first one is behavioral change, followed by the decongestion of Sandton. These will be supported by some permanent park-and-rides to also instill a permanent culture of park-and-ride in the area. The city will also keep a more sustainable lane strategy with respect to the public transport loop and dedicated lanes coming into Sandton. More legacy projects undertaken will be officially announced at the end of the month when the festival comes to an end.

Some of the work begun as the city was about to host the EcoMobility Festival and these will also create a legacy for the future. These include the extension of the Rea Vaya BRT, the roll-out of cycle lanes and the introduction of the Metrobus services in new areas of the city.

Q: What lessons should world cities take away from Johannesburg?

A: The most important one is knowing that it is possible to turn a city like Johannesburg into an ecomobile city. It is possible to change behavior away from private vehicle use through a mixture of infrastructural changes, new services and promotion. Small changes and tactical urbanism can work, but these should be complemented by long-term sustainability plans.

Also of key significance is high levels of stakeholder consultations and listening to the views of people before making decisions. It became apparent during the EcoMobility Festival that people in particular will shift transport modes if there are alternatives that they perceive to be safe.

Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope.

Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope. org.

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