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.

3 responses

  1. ‘We are somewhat obsessed with big infrastructure projects’: Do you have a specific ‘we’ in mind, and do you have a sense of why? The situation is the same in the energy sector in South Africa, and I wonder to what extent the origins of this obsession are shared.

    • The ‘we’ I’m thinking of is really ‘we transport planners’ and so it’s interesting to me that you see parallels with the energy sector. I read somewhere (where? Note to self (again) to get more organised) that engineers are taught to become ‘heroic’ actors in the dramas of life. Heroism – it seems to me – calls for big and dramatic action. The small interventions…the incremental improvements…these are not rewarded or even noticed most of the time. Yet, isn’t this what a strong system is really about? Many, many small aspects, relations, items working right most of the time?

  2. Thanks for this Lisa, what strikes me is the process of change – how it occurs, why it occurs. I think we are going down the same route when we (attempt) to mitigate climate change. The focus on the big and sexy vs on daily life and how people like to live.

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