If you have ever taken to cycling, running, walking or skating this thought might have occurred to you before: driving is a disgusting habit. Or maybe you have looked on in envy at the shiny new pumped-up and pimped-out sports models and thought how cool the people look inside them: oh-so-sleek as they cruise along blissfully. Nonetheless, driving is a disgusting habit.
Smoking, another addiction of the 20th century, has successfully been reduced in public places in South Africa over the past few years. At first it took a while for people to come to terms with how unhealthy the habit was and to admit that they were continuing contrary to mounting health statistics, not because they believed it was the best choice of past-time but because they were addicted.
They had been tricked by the sexy-cool appeal of the smoking adverts and a desire to feel included in that part of society. Hard to admit, isn’t it? They couldn’t do without the comfort of constant hand-to-mouth action and the social rituals organised around smoking breaks. Back then, the pesky do-gooders in the background fake-coughing in restaurants and wheezing outside bars in boycott of the proliferation of smoke were outsiders. “How anti-social are they?” said the smokers. “We are busy smoking here, lady, trying to enjoy our dinner. Go outside if you don’t like our smoke in your baby’s face.”
But then the smokers started getting emphysema and lung cancer and we looked on as old women and men continued puffing away at their cigarettes through mechanised lungs. How painful to watch your mother or father unable to let go of the habit that is killing them. Enough to put one generation off smoking? Perhaps.
But what was really remarkable for me was the quick shift in the social norm. A quick succession of laws that first banned smoking in certain indoor places to appease protective parents and not-so-fake asthma coughers soon had committed smokers relegated to small patches of grass or curbs in far corners of shady parking lots, out there on the fringes of the social core. Social outcasts in a way. A rethinking of the socialness of smoking occurred. Now we think, “Maybe I’ll just have a ciggy when I get home. It’s cold outside.” The norm became polluters out, non-polluters in. Those that enjoy the relaxing kick of smoking (it is lovely) and think it worth the risk of lung damage, should do so without bringing harm to others through secondary smoke in shared public spaces. A bit of compromise here and there but smokers and non-smokers gets more or less what they want. And those less committed to smoking are relieved of the social pressure to do so. Of course that makes sense!
Driving is a disgusting habit too. Well, perhaps that’s too emotive. Driving is a deeply unhealthy pastime for drivers, non-drivers and the environment too. The road is a social space, just as a restaurant is, and drivers are the smokers of the road. In this globalising world we are realising our limits. Threats of peak oil, world wars over fresh water supplies, and food security risks are frightening possibilities for the future and hard to imagine how they will fit into, or completely change our small everyday lives. It was hard to imagine a pub without smokers too once. But despite some advertising to the contrary, science points to drastic changes in climate caused by carbon addicted humans as a certainty of our future.
The healthy alternative is non-motorised transport, described by the Western Cape government as: “walking, cycling, per-ambulating, rollerblading, skateboarding, bicycle taxiing, rickshaw riding, horse riding, wheelchairs”. Local governments of South Africa have admitted to the health, monetary and environmental benefits of non-motorised transport. Imagine the large-scale health benefits for a city made of individuals that got 20 minutes of exercise every day instead of sitting in an idling car contributing to a cloud of smog. Then there are the more subtle health benefits of saving our own and the rest of society’s lungs from some dangerous emissions; the environmental and cost-saving benefits of less greenhouse gas emissions and less wear-and-tear on the expensive and environmentally damaging tarring of the earth’s surface.
There are social benefits too. Roads fragment our cities, isolating people from each other and children from their schools. They divide populations of animals and plants, making them weaker in the face of other human pressures. The ‘accidents’ of the road have become an accepted part of daily life and do not permit one to be outraged in the same way other violent deaths do. If a truck driver mows over a child while going about his business, we pass it off as an inevitability. (Read more here). Did we not create this motorised system that delivers goods and people? Should we not reconsider the full cost of the health, environmental and social damage caused by our invention of this far-reaching network of tarred earth, noisy, dirty and dangerous vehicles? And collectively start moving toward a different way of moving through our cities?
Do we have to see our society and our environment cough and wheeze its last breath through a mechanic ventilator before we change our ways? How long will it take us to admit we are addicted to cars? Despite what is best for us, despite what is best for our children and generations after that, despite the social injustice of money-spinners enjoying all the benefits of the car while intimidating the poor and rebellious onto the fringes of the road for fear of their mortality, we cannot let go of the habit of driving. We are addicted and we need help. We need a process of weaning and we need social and governmental support too.
City and municipal governments in Johannesburg, Ethekwini and Cape Town have shown a desire to accommodate cyclists (read more about Joburg’s plans here) but progress is slow. The roads are still the domain of the car and cars are privileged and accommodated at the cost of the rights of other road users. Citizens and government officials are understandably nervous about putting their own vulnerable flesh in the pathway of lumbering trucks, dozy motorists and erratic taxi drivers. Events and organisations like Moonlightmass, Pedal Power, Freedom Ride and Open Streets Cape Town organise events where cyclists, skaters, pedestrians and other vulnerable road users can be free of the danger of cars for a while and enjoy a safe shared space together.
An additional social issue that is acute in South Africa is the social hierarchy of spatial planning we inherited from apartheid. This plays out on the roads too. The poor tend to have to walk and take public transport, and are therefore more at risk of traffic accidents than those more well off who buy their own cars — metal security blankets that keep their owners safe but contribute to the dangerous but legal speed of the road.
In cities that are filling up and densifying, roads are becoming precious strips of shared public space filled with more people that need to learn to get along. Now that we have realised the social health hazards of driving, will drivers, the privileged in-group of the city’s population, soon be relegated to confined zones on the outskirts of the city where their speed and smoke does not harm others? Will we realise how socially problematic driving is and transition beyond our imagination from car-friendly cities to people-friendly and socially inclusive street spaces?
It is time to admit it: driving is a disgusting habit, but you are addicted. You are afraid of the dark, afraid of smelly sweaty pedestrians, afraid of the social issues that spill over into the street. But instead of solving social issues you lug around your giant mobile metal security blankies, even to the shop around the corner that is safe and manageable by foot. Isn’t it embarrassing to be seen at the shops with your giant mobile metal security blanket? No? We give our giant mobile metal security blankies names and talk to them. We clean them and make them look and feel gorgeous. Our cars are a part of us and our identity so we show them off to others that lug around their own precious giant mobile metal security blankets and we turn our noses up at those poor poor pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users. How embarrassing to be walking! How embarrassing to be seen in a taxi! How embarrassing to be sweaty!
No. How embarrassing to buy your way out of investing in solutions for society and driving alone in your safe car. How embarrassing to hide from society behind your giant mobile metal security blanket and turn your nose up at the rest. How embarrassing.
See how others broke the habit: in Bogota, Columbia, there are self-help groups that meet weekly to help a city filled with giant mobile metal security blanket addicts. A few decades back they started a campaign to make the public spaces of the road healthier through street festivals where cars weren’t invited. (Yes, you have to leave your blankie at home!) Now they have 120 kilometres of road closed off to cars every weekend. And a few others on the continent have followed suit. They know how. It is our turn now. Come on.
Frances Taylor is a master’s degree candidate at the University of Cape Town. She enjoys exploring city streets by foot, bike, taxi, bus, horse and car. She dreams of city streets that move to a rhythm more welcoming to pedestrians, kids, informal traders, musicians, the homeless, pigeons and trees, women and other forgotten owners of the street scape.
Images: Brendon Bosworth
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