“Lean and elegant”: The poetics of freeway building

Graphic from Proposal B

Graphic from Proposal C

“Our proposal starts”, said one of the Foreshore bids “by re-arranging and completing the elevated freeways in a lean and elegant way, thereby resolving the key traffic bottlenecks and improving traffic flows all across the surrounding road network.”

‘Lean’, ‘elegant’ and the resolution of traffic bottlenecks is not text-book civil engineering, but these words do evoke a long poetic tradition in traffic engineering texts.

When the first high speed roads for the foreshore were proposed by City Engineer Solomon Morris in 1951 they included a plan to depress part of a ring road across Government Avenue.

Morris wrote: “The bridges will be sympathetically designed in keeping with their sylvan setting, whilst the terraces and rockeries forming the banks will be planted with shrubs and other flowering plants so that no interruption or disturbance of the garden effect takes place…Indeed there is no reason why these proposals, if effectively carried out, should not enhance rather than detract from the beauty of the gardens and the Avenue promenade. The new vistas and the additional interest created by the difference of level, as well as the movement of traffic below the level of the gardens, will all help to enliven the scene, adding a touch of activity to the peaceful beauty of the surroundings. One may well imagine the pleasurable contemplation with which the passer-by through the Avenue will, from the quest seclusion of his elevation, gaze undisturbedly on the swift-moving traffic below.”

1951 Government Avenue

From: Metropolis of Tomorrow, 1951

Sylvan settings, lean and elegant roads, pleasurable contemplations, new vistas and gazes….Despite the use of scientific rationality and logical connections traffic engineering is, ultimately, about planning for the future. Planning, as Throgmorton has so memorably argued, is the art of persuasive story-telling. And as we can see from the texts it produces, engineering will try to persuade using whatever means have most power: numbers, graphics, models, presentations and even, if required, poetry.

Freeways: who decides what’s re-presented?

Foreshore dragon

Source: Cape Times. April 7, 1973 and Louis De Waal clippings collection

The Foreshore Freeways have been controversial from the outset. As the Long Street extension to Culemborg section was being built in the early 1970s the National Monuments Council unleashed an attack on the City of Cape Town for ‘indiscriminate development’. Fury focused on the potential impact of the planned Buitengracht Freeway section of the scheme.

Consultants warned that public opposition could stop the Buitengracht Freeway section and advised that the road be depressed, in order to alleviate the visual intrusion from the scheme. The costs, though, did not impress the Council Executive Committee, nor did the prospect of a ‘canyon’ through this part of Cape Town. Three years later the Buitengracht Freeway issue was still unresolved, and was deliberated by a new inter-disciplinary Environmental Advisory Board, who rejected both the elevated and depressed schemes and instead proposed a ground level alternative. A year later the matter was still unresolved, and residents in De Waterkant also weighed in with opposition, claiming that ‘a huge elevated freeway’ would be a tragedy for the townscape of old Cape Town. A new Committee of the Institute of Architects was formed, called ‘Urban Vigilance’, who countered the engineering consultants’ sketches in circulation with their own.

Buitengracht freeway

Engineering sketches of Buitengracht freeway

Urban vigilance Buitengracht

Architect sketches of Buitengracht freeway

So I am wondering, will we get to see any street level views of the proposed schemes? And if so, who decides what gets re-presented?

Parents, pangs and walking to school

There’s something aching beautiful about the sight of young children walking, cycling or scooting to school. Hair flaying, rosy cheeks, eager faces…there are few parents whose heart doesn’t melt at the sight.
I may be a hopeless romantic, but the sight always brings pangs of wistful nostalgia for my own school days. For most of us with school going children we, too, walked those streets, making friends with the neighbours’ dogs, and the neighbours along the way, getting to know the corner shop, the post box, the dip in the footpath where the rain always lingered. For those children unable to experience that freedom to roam the streets, something very special has been lost.
In Cape Town’s poorer communities the picture of children daily en route to school is more out of necessity than choice. In the more affluent suburbs the gleeful children who do walk the streets are usually accompanied by ashen and rather anxious looking parents, and for once their anxiety isn’t about crime. Rather it’s about the other suburban parents driving their own kids to school. In a hurry. Not looking. The fear is of collision, crash, worse….no wonder so few of us who have choices take the risk and let our kids loose to get to school under their own steam. And yet by accepting this situation, so much is lost. Not only for our kids, but for ourselves and for our cities. Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota calls children “a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”
By this rubric Cape Town is failing miserably.

‘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.

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

Engineering, roads and public participation: “It’s technical….not political”

There’s a picture which will stay in my mind long after the Wynberg public participation meeting on the proposed phase 2a BRT scheme meeting is forgotten. It’s the faces of City engineers looking, frankly, baffled. Like George Bush caught reading children’s stories while the twin towers collapsed many of the City engineers were caught off-guard reading the wrong script and wondering “how on earth did I end up here?” The public feedback was frequently jeering, bitter and highly critical of the engineers (“Hogwash!” “It feels so unprofessional”). The awkward moves of the engineers to deflect criticism (“This is not a political meeting…it’s technical!”) were met with scornful laughter and resentment at their apparent ignorance.
The audience had it really wrong about engineers and engineering. And really right.
First the wrong part. Engineers are not, by and large, stupid. An engineering degree is one of the most difficult university programmes to enter. Engineering students are universally derided for being hardworking nerds and the benchmarks for graduating are high. Engineers are then, by any standards, pretty bright. Also, engineers tend not to be the mean-spirited despots portrayed by the public. Many engineers enter the profession because they want to see good in the world. They are practical people often disenchanted with lack of material progress for humankind. I’ve been surprised at how many City of Cape Town engineers continue to work in a frustrating bureaucracy because they still secretly harbour some genuine wish to serve the public.
Then again.
The same university and professional education processes nurturing bright minds also generate much political, historical and social ignorance in the pursuit of engineering efficiency. Much of the undergraduate engineering education purposefully ignores historical context (and with it community memory and pain). And so an engineer can claim in a public meeting in Wynberg, with no sense of irony or cruelty, that a road scheme planned during apartheid is as valid today as it was then. In the traditional engineering paradigm “a road is a road” and a road, it has been taught, is a matter of efficient movement of people and vehicles. The road has little other meaning. In the engineering mindset if the road was “technically” valid in 1952, it is valid now. Educated to trust in their own pure objectivity a traffic engineer can publically state, without blushing, that a meeting to discuss a highly contested route, requiring relocation of families, affecting notable heritage sites and substantially impacting on a key business node of the City is not a political matter.
I am really encouraged, then, by a relatively new offering in the Engineering and Built Environment Faculty at UCT called “Social Infrastructures: Engaging with Communities for Change” acknowledging that development is a socio-technical process….shaped by the institutional and political context.” Let’s hope that as the BRT rolls out the engineers become much less baffled and much more savvy about power, pain and politics.

Do roads have politics?

This question – do roads have politics – from Langdon Winner in 1980 has been beguiling me for a (long) time. Winner asked it while describing 1920s ‘parkway’ access routes from New York City to the beaches of Long Island. The routes provided one of the few means for New Yorkers to leave the crowded city and to experience leisure in the great outdoors. Intriguingly (so the story goes) the bridges over the parkways were low enough to stop buses (mainly used by poorer African-Americans), but suitable for rich car owners to pass under. By stopping the buses the bridges were acting out their politics of race, and privileging some (car owners) over other (bus users). Almost one hundred years on the original politics which guided the New York parkway bridges are now largely forgotten, argued Winner, and yet in some way these bridges remain silently controlling.

In a similar vein Ralf Brand has written about the rumours that footpaths in Belfast were constructed to full vehicle-weight specification, to allow armoured vehicles to travel on them. Having worked in Belfast, I saw at first hand how street design and Northern Irish politics  were linked. Discussions around whether to install a roundabout/circle or a set of signals/robots at a new junction in Belfast in 1991 centred more on whether hit-and-run gunmen would be able to escape, than on the ability of the intersection to cope with peak hour traffic.

More recently and closer to home, Don Pinnock has written about the clustered, inward looking apartheid-era housing developments which included compulsory ‘buffer strips’ adjoining the roads between townships. These strips, 200-300 yards wide, provided sufficient space for tanks to turn in and were “known in planning circles as ‘machine gun belts’” (Pinnock, 2008). The tanks have long gone but the strips remain in our city – brutally separating the communities still living alongside them.

So – do roads have politics? And if so what are they? Perhaps the politics at play on most streets are more subtle and more complex than the examples described by Winner, Brand and Pinnock but – I suggest – they are still immensely powerful.


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