“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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