Transit oriented development (TOD) has gained popular support in South African transport and urban planning policy circles. It has become a somewhat trendy term without any real interrogation of what exactly it means for South African cities. What is often neglected in the TOD discussions in South Africa is the magnitude of changes in mind-sets and processes which will be required to deliver city fabrics which support and prioritise the use of public transport. So why are cities continuously reinforcing, at least rhetorically, this shift in city growth towards TOD?
Twenty years after democracy South African cities remain deeply spatially and socio-economically divided. This is a major challenge to the competitive development of South Africa as highlighted in the National Development Plan. Although not immediately obvious, the focus on prioritising the private vehicle has contributed significantly to the current spatial and socio-economic divide. South African cities have the dual challenge of overcoming highly fragmented and unequal spatial and socio-economic realities as well as overcoming the rapidly increasing threat of automobile dependence. Thus our cities ultimately need to strive for the development of more socially integrated, environmentally friendly, and universally affordable spatial patterns.
Enter the emphasis on public transport improvements. Over the past decade South African cities have witnessed an unprecedented level of investment in public transport infrastructure and systems. These investments have been clearly understood, from the outset, as catalysts for reshaping cities’ urban forms. Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town now have a number of new ‘high quality’ public transport systems in operation yet the transit oriented development response has not been consciously incorporated.
It could be argued that if one looks at the amount of development which has taken place around the Sandton and Rosebank Gautrain stations, developers are certainly responding positively to public transport systems. However, from a pure transit oriented development perspective these development responses would be deemed unsuitable. While they showcase higher density and in some cases comprise a land use mix, they lack other vital characteristics which tie the development intrinsically to the public transport service. Academics have referred to these types of developments as transit adjacent developments, almost pretenders in a way. Why has this been the case?
This is partially due to the fact that city policy has been unable to clearly define the critical elements required to achieve transit oriented development. This is exacerbated by the inability to engage with what a TOD focus means for city development planning approaches and processes (which ultimately give rise to property development across cities). Transit oriented development requires four critical ingredients which South African developments around public transport stations are missing.
1) Dramatic reductions in the number of parking bays supplied in developments. In the face of increasing congestion, greater threats associated with global climate change and declining oil reserves, developments located within close proximity to public transport stations should take advantage of heightened accessibility afforded by public transport. Two reasons are often cited for the reluctance to decrease parking provision. Firstly, in the development planning process traffic engineering inputs and approval is pivotal. A manual indicating parking standard minimums has been traditionally applied to property developments and it is often difficult to motivate for deviations from the standard. Secondly, private property developers are reluctant to reduce parking as it is perceived to be a risk to attracting tenants. Thus, buy-in from both the public and private sector is crucial.
2) The ground floor of a development in close proximity to public transport stations should interface with the public space by allowing direct access to the public. This encourages street frontages which are full of activity for long periods throughout the day and are proven to be inherently safer. Think of how one accesses shops, restaurants, offices and apartments along Oxford Street in London after emerging from the tube station. What our development practices have given rise to is parking lots on ground level completely segregated from the public space usually providing a single entrance for pedestrians.
3) South African roads prioritise the movement of vehicles. TOD environments are facilitated by the prioritisation of pedestrians and cyclists in the public space. Internationally, many cities have closed streets around central areas to vehicles in this regard. If an urban fabric primarily supports people who are walking and cycling, more people will be incentivised to leave their cars at home and use public transport. Couple this with fewer parking spaces and more activity on the street for longer periods of the day and these environments become desirable.
4) Spatial reconfigurations have a major role to play in achieving social transformation. A component of any TOD should be to incorporate a portion of that development for the greater social good. This has not been sufficiently grappled with in development planning policy and processes. Internationally, some cities have implemented policy which mandates developers to commit up to 30 percent of the development for social redistributive purposes. The fact that this has not been incorporated in South African development planning processes is a major gap given the spatial legacy that needs to be addressed in our cities.
The change in mind-sets and processes required to achieve these TOD environments cannot be underestimated. It will require a major shift in the manner in which city governments facilitate and approve developments across the city, as well as a shift in the way people live in cities. Sprawling housing development on the periphery of the city (facilitated by the automobile) must be understood as a threat to the long term success of TOD. Municipalities need to curb the amount of developments being approved on the periphery, whilst simultaneously increasing the number of TODs being implemented. Developments that entrench automobile dependant lifestyles will prolong the desire for an abundance of parking spaces to be provided in developments regardless of location. Implicitly this calls for city governments to play a more prominent role in steering and facilitating both private and public property developments across the city, with an emphasis on achieving more effective TODs.
The thrust towards transit oriented development is an exciting shift in urban growth and development. It promises to place South African cities on a more inclusive and sustainable growth trajectory which will position cities more competitively in the long term. At the back end of this transport month we should reflect on what improvements could be made to our cities which would galvanise the transformation of more sustainable, inclusive and liveable urban spaces, spearheaded by public transport.
Geoffrey Bickford is affiliated with the South African Cities Network