Joburg goes back to the future: walking

For centuries, long before the advent of cars, walking was humankind’s only means of getting around. Going to places of economic activity, visiting friends and family in faraway places and travelling to and from sporting and cultural events all involved putting one foot in front of the other.

Enter Karl Benz and technology. Walking as a form of mobility was over time relegated to the fringes of all types of transportation. It was largely seen as a means of transport for the poor. But much as cars have brought the pleasures of convenience, efficiency and substantially increased turnaround times in various value chains, they have caused and continue to cause a lot of damage to our world – and ourselves.

The toxic gases they emit from their engines cause untold harm to the environment.

Research has shown that if only 15% of motorists in and around Johannesburg could take their cars off the road, the City could cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1.6 million tons by 2020. Because many people spend a large portion of their time behind the wheel – they even hop into their cars to go buy bread and milk at the corner shop – the body lacks the necessary exercise and stimuli it needs to remain strong and healthy. Even those who go to the gym make sure they park their cars as close to the entrance as possible, giving them very little time and space to walk.

The lack of exercise contributes in large measure to the onset of lifestyle diseases and conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and cancer, which lead to a drop in life expectancy, which in turn has devastating consequences for the economy. The City of Johannesburg wants to return to the future – walking – and it wants to take its residents along with it.

In less than five months, the City will demonstrate that this is possible when it hosts the second EcoMobility World Festival during which, for the entire month of October, certain streets of Sandton will be closed to make way for “greener ways of travelling”, including walking, cycling and using public transport.

“We want to grow a movement of ecomobility champions of ordinary men, women and young people who walk, cycle and use public transport to share their experiences with each other and have a healthy lifestyle and contribute to a more sustainable Joburg for this and future generations,” says Executive Mayor Clr Parks Tau.

The inaugural EcoMobility World Festival was held in Haenggung-dong, Suwon, in South Korea in partnership with the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) in September 2013. During that time, more than 1 500 cars were removed from the suburb’s streets and 4 340 residents took part in the month-long activities.

The event, described as “hugely successful”, attracted more than one million local and international participants, 40 international businesses and an equivalent of R130 million in investment. The fact that the City of Johannesburg raised its hand to host the second edition of the EcoMobility World Festival – and was given the nod by ICLEI and demonstrates the seriousness of its determination to go the greener transport route as quickly as possible.

Ecomobility combines the use of non-motorised means of transport – such as walking and cycling – with the use of public transportation, thereby avoiding privately owned vehicles to get around. Ideally, public transport should be powered by renewable energy, as are Metrobus and Rea Vaya buses, but ecomobility does not, per se, exclude minibus and metered taxis, and petrol- and diesel-powered buses. It is privately owned vehicles that are a definite no-no.

The City, however, recognises the fact that for residents to make a shift to the greener transport alternative, it has to create the necessary environment to make it easily accessible, affordable and safe. To this end, the City has over the past few years made significant strides to provide the necessary infrastructure, such as pedestrian and cycle lanes.  One of the projects was the construction of a 5km cycle lane on the sidewalk between Orlando West in Soweto and Noordgesig, linking schools to social amenities in the township.

The City is at present, at the height of constructing no fewer than nine cycling routes and complete streets running into several dozens of kilometres at a total cost of more than R250 million. Six of the projects are expected to be completed by June this year. These are the:

  • 10km University of Johannesburg-Wits University cycling route (from Park Station to Melville);
  • 5km University of Johannesburg-Wits University cycling route (from Park Station to Doornfonten);
  • 25km complete streets in Sophiatown;
  • 15km complete streets in Langlaagte;
  • 12km compete streets in Hillbrow; and
  • 10km of complete streets in Ivory Park.

The Great Walk project, which incorporates the building of an iconic multimillion-rand overhead bridge boasting 5km dedicated cycling and walking routes linking Alexandra and Sandton, is expected to be completed by October next year, in time for the celebration of Transport Month.

For Sandton, Johannesburg’s second-largest central business district, the switch to ecomobility will serve another major purpose – easing severe traffic congestion. With commuter traffic growing at a rate of 3% annually in the Sandton CBD, the reality is that it will grind to a halt if the trend is not arrested soon.

Johannesburg Member of the Mayoral Committee for Transport Christine Walters says: “More than 85 000 vehicles move in and out of the Sandton precinct during peak traffic each day. About 70% of these trips are undertaken by privately owned cars.

“We are hoping that even after the EcoMobility World festival, Sandton workers will realise that is it healthier, more affordable and safer to travel to work using public transport, walking and cycling.”

With all the multimillion-rand capital projects the City is undertaking to provide the necessary infrastructure to create enabling conditions for non-motorised transport, backed by unwavering political will, we can now all start walking back to the future with confidence.


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