On “co-benefits” and gazing

On “co-benefits” and gazing

So I’m sitting here thinking: how do I make an interesting “hook” out of the word: “co-benefits”? Working in transport planning and road engineering I have this problem a lot. It’s a conversation killer at dinner parties. But when I dig deeper with the munchers at my side and the connections between roads and time and buses and people and walking and connecting become clearer then they get excited. And so do I.

So, “co-benefits”. I’ve learnt recently, that the people working in climate change mitigation use this word a lot. It captures the idea that the gloomy prospect of climate change isn’t making enough difference to how decision makers think. And so the mitigation people are looking for these “co-benefits” – for ways of linking things that work for climate change with things that work for other reasons. Solar water heaters are a (sort of) good example. They save energy AND they save money. Co-benefits!

Trouble is, to buy a solar water geyser you need money up front. Many people are happy to pay for stuff they really crave like clothes and TVs and cars using debt but they don’t want to pay for a solar water geyser using debt. It’s a grudge purchase. So I was musing all of this as I was bumping along on the Jammie Shuttle bus up to campus. One part of my brain was wondering how anyone could persuade people with a choice to choose a bus over a car when the ride is so darned uncomfortable and the other part of my brain was thinking about co-benefits.

Then I spotted the most beautiful thing in my side vision: a young boy bowling a cricket ball. I’m not a cricket fan…but his energy and fluidity and joy just caught me and I turned and stared. Then I picked up my phone and starting writing this and thought to myself. “Yes, there it is, a subtle, profound co-benefit of riding the bus today rather than the car”. The simple enjoyment of a boy playing cricket and my having the time to turn and gaze. Co-benefit. Made my day.

“Too much information” Mothering liftclubs

“Too much information” Mothering liftclubs

The problem is that when it comes to lift clubs for children and teenagers, I have too much information. Information which, once seen, cannot be forgotten. It has changed the way I think about my teens, their schools and teachers, their extra murals and their social lives. Most of my otherwise intelligent and well-read circle of friends have no idea about this. The information? It relates to seemingly mundane topics of traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Given that many are passionately interested in traffic congestion and only luke warm about carbon then let’s start there.
The traffic in the mornings, we know, is always hell. But it’s particularly hellish during school terms and when universities are in session. The good reason for that is the traffic in the morning is 30-40% commuter and 30-40% school/ college related. As individuals, we despair, believing that we can do little to dent it. Interestingly, though, that’s not how traffic works. In fact, in congested cities where traffic is generally in some sort of unstable equilibrium, little changes to traffic composition can have disproportionally large impacts. Four children being driven to school with mom in four separate cars for example, could, if lift-clubbed in, reduce space used by vehicles by 40m2. That freed up space means, in simple terms, less congestion. In practice, of course, it’s a bit more complicated, but the principle that the status quo can be challenged remains.
Lift-clubs get really compelling, though, if we look at global warming. This is all too often is imagined as a Big Industry problem or else something we can alleviate at home through putting on warm clothes, fitting low energy lights, recycling and buying local. I don’t knock these for a minute, but we also need to look at lifestyles much more carefully if we’re going to really dent energy use and emissions. The data shows that transporting people and stuff accounts for roughly half of all the energy used in cities in South Africa. We tend not to notice it. But it’s significant.
So where is all that energy going? Detailed work done in Nelson Mandela Municipality backed up our own findings in Central Cape Town. Many people use very little resource energy at all to move about either because they walk or cycle, travel very short distances, or use energy efficient public transport. In fact 80% of the transport energy used in cities is by 20% of the population. Who are those 20%? Well, the uncomfortable reality is that I’m one of them – living in a two-car owning household with an upper-middle class lifestyle. The detailed data we have is a bit thin but we can conservatively estimate that 5-10% of all urban energy used is related to the transport of upper-middle class and wealthy children and teenagers.

Source: Cape Town Partnership

Source: Cape Town Partnership

Two closing thoughts, then. One is that it makes little sense to teach affluent children about resource constraints and global warming at school and to continue ferrying them to hockey on their own with mom. Secondly, here is a rare instance where, with a little commitment individuals can really make a significant impact. It takes organisation and community-mindedness, but parents have that already and (bonus) the big beneficiaries in all of this are the children.

“Motorized” normal?

“Motorized” normal?

Call me crass for making the point but I can’t read “Non Motorized” without thinking “Non White” and “Non European”. Then I’m left wondering what the consequences are of South Africans adopting the term “NMT” (Non Motorized Transport)? This is especially pressing given the ongoing discussions around the long overdue National Guidelines for “NMT” (up for discussion tomorrow in Cape Town), which will concrete the term even further into the South African psyche.

The argument is familiar to the social and political scientists. “Non Motorized”, like “Non European”, makes one category normal and the other abnormal. With being normal and abnormal come the baggage of acceptability (or not), being the centre of attention (or not) and (more practically) institutional resources (or not). Are we comfortable to make motorized movement normality, and other ways of moving about the abnormal “non”?

The frequent response to criticisms of this kind are to point out the lack of a suitable vocabulary for alternatives. But perhaps there’s a good reason for that misfit between current terminology and South African reality. The current vocabulary, like the practices, have been largely adopted from elsewhere. “Non Motorized Transport” is a peculiarly North American term not widely used in less auto focused Europe. There the talk is more of “walking and cycling”. “Active transport” has been adopted by those with an anti-obesity agenda for transport, while “slow modes” works well for the the slow food and slow life movements. “Accessible transport”, meanwhile, carries the longings of those frustrated by car culture.

None of these, though, capture the richness of things-which-move-without-petrol-motors-in-South-Africa and for good reason. Informal traders needing to navigate streets are barely unheard of in Boston. Children walking to school en masse along rural highways are not a widespread feature of Dutch life. Needing to navigate the sprawling Apartheid city without an income does not have the same pressing urgency in New York. The places which have birthed and deeply informed our vocabulary and our ways of designing and planning the South African city do not share our cultures.

South Africans are adept at inventing vocabulary for uniquely South African matters. South-African-things-that-move-under-their-own-steam (rather than petrol or coal energy) deserve something more ambitiously home-grown than the regressive and imported label “Non”.

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