On PhD humiliation: letter to a friend


Hi Beth,

It was good to see you yesterday, although you did seem out-of-sorts and, as you said yourself: shattered. As I sat there I was quite torn. On the one hand you were asking for my thoughts and recollections, but on the other hand it seemed that more than anything you needed to have a good howl. I hope you got that (howl) before the end of the day. So in answer to your question, here are a few thoughts. I hope they help, but I think the howl will probably help more.

The PhD process brought me to some of my lowest lows in my work life so far. Bringing our as-yet-unformed work in front of so-called experts is exposing, even humiliating. It’s hard not to feel demeaned and belittled in front of rigorous academic critique. I remember phoning Rob after one such session and choking, sobbing over the phone. That was my lowest point and I nearly, nearly gave up. On one level a PhD is simply a qualification in bloody-minded persistence. It’s about not giving up, and about keeping going through times exactly like this.

In retrospect (and I know this is probably not much consolation) I can see the emotional lows are a big part of the process. You will reach a stage where you know the answers to the questions raised by experts or you can see the questions for what they are – irrelevant. Then there you are, standing firm on your own piece of ground and robust in your position.

Remember, also, we are ‘disabled’ to some degree by our age, gender and past as practitioners. Academic language and norms are not the same as the languages we use in practice. As difficult as it is to learn a new language, so it is to learn academic norms of communication. This will feel a real struggle at first but once mastered you have a huge advantage because you will know how to speak in practice AND in academic words. Bilingual. Not all academics have that. Similarly as a woman you may struggle to be heard in your male-dominated discourse, but once you’ve mastered the use of male academic language then you have the advantage of being able to slip in-between those worlds.

So well done on getting this far. Hang on in there. Persistence is key. More than anything, just take the next step.

Warm wishes, Lisa

The catastrophic consequences of demolishing freeways. Not.

Existing masshouse infrastructure


Photos courtesy of Birmingham City Council

There has been an air of impossibility surrounding discussions about the Foreshore and catastrophizing about the traffic chaos which ‘will’ ensue. (Catastrophizing which, by the way, should be taken with one very big pinch of salt). The protestations are so dramatic, one would think that Cape Town is the only city to face traffic congestion and a busy inner city core.

Urban enthusiasts are already familiar with the North American examples where elevated freeways have been removed without descent into Armageddon (and instead with many benefits to the cities concerned). These benefits include better access to all areas along the road (previously inaccessible); unlocking new opportunities for land development; better pedestrian access; opportunities for public spaces; and reduced noise. I love these pictures of the UK city of Birmingham where a ring road built in the 1960s was part of the reason for the city’s grimy and dreary reputation. The City council saw the potential to bring the road infrastructure to ground, unlocking large packages of land. Latest news is that these packages of inner city land have been sold for residential apartment blocks, generating a new wave of inner city life which keeps the centre vibrant while relieving the need for so much car space for commuters. In light of ongoing tension over housing, particularly inner city housing, it’s really time that the debate over freeways also allowed for a more informed discussion about demolition.

Small is beautiful: on NMT infrastructure


Picture from ‘Annual Report of the City Engineer, Cape Town. 1984-1985’


“Without large and expensive investments for public (mass) transport or situations such as the cycle lanes in Rosebank/Rondebosch, what other options exist for promoting non-motorised transport?” Thanks to the UCT student who forced me to think hard about this.

We are somewhat obsessed with big infrastructure projects. Whether it is big freeways, or big BRT schemes or the “big” cycle infrastructure projects. Whatever form it takes, we love those big, sexy (expensive) infrastructure schemes. And yet, if you take a good look at the places where walking and cycling thrives (think Scandinavia, the low countries, small town UK, even Portland, US), for the most part this is not achieved on the back of big schemes like we see in Rondebosch or next to the BRT. Rather, these shifts have been achieved thanks to decades of incremental, small scale, local improvements to junctions, crossings, local streets, local schools, residential neighbourhoods. By applying a road narrowing here, speed tables there, speed restrictions, play streets, one ways, traffic circles, traffic signal priorities for pedestrians, improved footways, landscaping (get the picture) then local streets and neighbourhoods have been transformed and (most importantly slowed). This is important for two reasons. Firstly to work well NMT needs safe, comfortable door-to-door access which the big infrastructure projects can never give; secondly, investing in local areas has long term spin off benefits by making local areas and businesses more attractive (which in the long run cuts down on the necessity for car trips)….a win-win.

So, my medicine for NMT would be budgetary and organisational. Change and increase the local government transport and planning department budget lines to better support localised action, and get over the obsession with big sexy infrastructure schemes. Of course, such medicine is mundane, slow, and not as attractive to construction companies or politicians as the big schemes…..but its cheaper and in the long run much more effective.

‘Unfinished’ Foreshore Freeways – Let’s start with a clear brief

Cyclist and freeways_Lisa Kane_Road Classsification_3

The morning of Tuesday 21 June – I’m listening intently to the Mayor and Mayco Member for Transport, Councillor Brett Herron talking about proposals for the foreshore precinct. It’s rather surprising: “Whether the unfinished highways stay or go, are completed, or redesigned altogether, is for the proposed bidders to put forward” . This is not as focused on completing freeways as the earlier statements from the Mayor. This is more about land-use development; about bringing in the creative private sector; about open and transparent public participation. This is welcome. It’s balanced. It’s exciting. It’s different to what has gone before.

Then again… perhaps it’s a bit too enthusiastic about the ability or interest of the private sector to develop this land. But the statements from the podium are open-ended enough for a range of proposals to be put forward. It looks like the City is taking a wait-and-see approach.

My main concern is that there’s nothing in the statements (other than calls for affordable housing) about safeguards for ensuring good and plentiful public space, but this might be balanced out in the process of public involvement…

I’m feeling quietly optimistic. That is, until the Mayor is interviewed on the John Maytham Show later that day on the topic. Now she is stridently insisting that completing the freeways will be part of this scheme. She insists she has said so! I check the press statement again: “…part of the conditions for the development will be that it includes the funds to complete the unfinished bridges, alleviate congestion and provide affordable housing”.

Same statement – conflicting views on finishing the freeways or not.

If this process is going to succeed it needs a clear and visionary brief from the City; a brief which enables the design teams to do their own work. This brief should not prejudge the creative process. It should sketch out a vision, and not any solutions. It should trust in the design and engineering professionals to do what they do best.

A clear design brief is an absolute necessity. My hope is that the City will have the time, vision and wisdom to do just that, if nothing else, before 8 July when the Bid documents are released.

‘Unfinished’ Foreshore Freeways – An unexpected monument to struggle?


Eastern Boulevard Construction through District Six. Source: City of Cape Town Engineer’s Annual Report 1964


It’s almost fifty years since construction on the ‘unfinished’ foreshore freeways in Cape Town started. For most of the 1940s and 1950s the foreshore was a windswept, bleak sandy wasteland beyond Adderley Street. It had been reclaimed from the sea for the construction of a new port during the 1930s, but by the early 1960s the new land hadn’t been developed  yet. The intervening period was one of intense wrangling between planners, politicians and engineers about how to develop the area. In 1963 a committee comprising a Detroit traffic engineer; a Bishops educated, British Professor of Planning; and a local engineer finally articulated an idea for a freeway route around the city. It was typical of thinking at that time.

This new freeway would provide a fast route for national traffic from the western suburbs of Sea Point and Camps Bay to connect with the N1 and the rest of the country. It would also provide a freeway up Buitengracht Street as far as Shortmarket Street. The silent sixties in South Africa meant public reaction to most things, including such road building, was muted. When the Eastern Boulevard (now named “Nelson Mandela Boulevard”) cut through District Six housing in 1963/4 there was little response registered by the engineers. By 1972, however, the mood had shifted dramatically. Awakening heritage, conservation, environmental and civil rights movements started protest the development of these urban freeways. The huge arches of the foreshore freeways were suddenly labelled by the local press as a “concrete dragon”.

Similarly, outrage was being expressed in the US where freeways had been built through downtowns . The roads ripped through “black neighbourhoods” and contributed to the rising civil rights movement in a series of ‘highway revolts’. South African road engineers, returning from trips to the US, were shocked by how dramatically the mood in the US had shifted against the very urban freeway construction that South Africa was in the midst of. Returning from one such an overseas tour in 1968 a senior National Transport official argued strongly that National Government should no longer subsidise urban freeway building. Over the course of the 1970s urban road schemes across the country were either quietly dropped or downgraded. By the mid-1970s attention had shifted away from the Cape Town CBD to the then new Mitchells Plain, which required huge roads and service infrastructure investment to fulfil the Apartheid plan.

So yes, officially the foreshore freeway was stopped because the money ‘ran out’; it ran out because the international civil rights movement was waking up while, ironically, the Apartheid machinery was gearing into action. In this sense the ‘unfinished’ freeway can be seen as a physical manifestation of the struggle for human rights in making of cities. It stands as a memorial to painful struggles both at home and elsewhere.

Four truths about roads and ‘unfinished’ freeways

Lisa Kane_unfinished highway

Some years ago exasperated Professor of Transport Policy, Phil Goodwin took to the stage for his inaugural lecture at the University College London, with a lecture memorably titled, Solving Congestion (when we must not build roads, increase spending, lose votes, damage the economy, and will never find equilibrium). In it he took a well-aimed swipe at the ignorance about traffic which circulates as knowledge.

In the past 20 years this summary still stands as a piece of sense in a sea of rhetoric and exaggerated claims about the role of roads in the economy. As the news of plans to complete Cape Town’s (in)famous ‘unfinished’ freeways make headlines, yet again, it’s worth revisiting four well-researched truths about traffic:

  1. Roads generate traffic. The best metaphor for this research is of the fat man (traffic) with a tight belt (roads). Does adding a notch or two solve the fat problem? Does keeping the belt tight make the fat man more or less likely to stay fat? We know from research that in urban areas adding more roads simply feeds a culture of more and more car use. It does nothing to constrain that appetite for car travel.
  1. Roads do not solve congestion. Loosening the ‘belt’ (adding more roads) does, for sure give some immediate relief. But in the long term road-building generates even more traffic and the early-year benefits are quickly eroded. We don’t have to look further than Hospital Bend to see how quickly gridlock has resumed after the supposed relief of the additional lanes built at great expense to the tax-payer. On a larger scale the freeway city of Los Angeles, which suffers almost perpetual traffic congestion, should be a warning against the pursuit of road building.
  1. Travel behaviour is a process, not a state. Instead of thinking about fat men in tight belts, the metaphor transport planners use is that traffic is like water: It flows in pipes (roads). Improving the flow means diverting the water, into more and faster pipes (roads). But people are not water molecules. They are not the same. Less than two years after its launch we are already witness the impact of Uber on attitudes towards car ownership. What difference will Uberpool and other car share schemes make to how cars are used and to how traffic flows?
  1. Road building kills public transport. Public transport provision is a tricky, marginal business. It needs lots of people travelling on it to be viable. Public transport can quickly enter downward, or upward, spirals. In the upward spiral more people travelling mean that more buses are required, which means a more frequent service, which makes it more attractive to more people….and so on. In the downwards spiral the opposite becomes true. So road building and public transport are linked. And investing in roads reduces the viability of public transport.

We live in an era where almost everything points away from even more urban road building: climate change, technology developments, bus rapid transit schemes, pedestrianisation, high incidence of road-related deaths and urban renewal.

It begs the question why the completion of these freeways are even being considered as a sensible move?

On Friday, 10 June, I was interviewed John Maytham of Cape Talk about the issue of the unfinished highways. Listen to the interview here

Mommy PhD: Writing on Mars


Let's Pretend_a Bonnie Book_Lisa Kane_Mommy PhD_Writing on Mars

Cover of children’s book “Let’s Pretend” via Pinterest


It’s so important to have separation while studying, but how do you make sure that the necessary separation doesn’t become hurtful? How do you avoid resentful children en route to a lifetime of therapy? This was a tough one for me. I didn’t want Brett and Hannah to feel that they couldn’t have access to me but I also needed them to know that my PhD room was a different room from the others in the house.

When they were very little I would leave them with care-givers and tell them that I was “going to Mars”. “Going to Mars” they understood, really meant going down to the shed-study at the bottom of the garden, but in their vivid imaginations I was on Mars. If they wanted to contact me they would use the “inter-planetary” phone. And of course there were exceptions to the galactic separation. Needing a cuddle with mama was reason enough for warp-speed space travel, with me happily beaming back down to earth, because cuddles are available at any time – no questions asked.

%d bloggers like this: