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Year-end review 1 - transportation
29 October 2007

Transport plans on the table for Johannesburg will help to change the face of the city, as well as the way residents and visitors use it.

Neil Fraser
Neil Fraser

I SAID last week that in 10 years’ time, the inner city of Johannesburg would be unrecognisable from the city of today. One of the reasons for this will be “transport” and, more particularly in relation to the inner city, transportation infrastructure.

Surely one of the major issues that differentiates a “world class” city from the “run-of-the-mill” is transportation. Those who have spent time in European and American cities will have been struck by the choice of a variety of public transport that makes it a pleasure to travel from point A to point B. At the other end of the scale, visitors to South African cities just cannot understand how our citizens cope without visible, understandable, safe, and dependable transport.

Now we have a flurry of activity aimed at reversing this through the Gautrain, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, the Inner City Distribution System (ICDS), and Rea Vaya (what appears to have been the Integrated Transportation System under a new name). Yet, with the plethora of systems being provided there are also inherent dangers if we do not approach transport planning with the right motives and objectives.

Gary Toth, an American transportation planner with over 30 years’ experience, says: "I was part of a profession that for five decades viewed its mission as simply accommodating the demands of traffic, whether on local streets or on state and national highways. The quality of life in communities and the condition of the environment were someone else's business; our job was to move cars and trucks [I would add 'buses'] as smoothly and rapidly as possible … but as time went on, it became clear to me that the real point of transportation projects should be building successful communities and fostering economic prosperity.”

Healthy cities
Roberta Brandes Gratz of The Living City, wrote this back in 1994: "Healthy cities contain a rich mix of old and new buildings and uses, high style and ordinary, large and modest, all in place due to historical economic and social forces involving the actions of many different people and institutions over a period of decades, even centuries. And healthy cities recognise the crucial need to maintain or rebuild a mass transit infrastructure. Cities become suburban and cannot function as cities if auto-dependency overtakes mass transit options. They become office parks on top of shopping malls and parking garages instead."

This reference to "healthy cities" probably owes its origin to that city guru, the late Jane Jacobs, who made these comments in a 1993 radio interview: "There is a kind of mass transit cities used to be very rich in, and Toronto still is, the kind that is part of the fabric of the city itself, doesn't just go overhead and take people whoosh, but links all kinds of places within the city and that's the kind of mass transit we need to begin to reconstitute … It's a necessity for people to go to work. It's a necessity for people to get to hospitals, to schools. It isn't just a frill. In a really healthy city, it's something that knots the whole thing together and has a great deal to do with the economy."

At about the time of that broadcast, I commented on an extensive investigation that the City undertook into an ICDS based on a light rail solution. The costs proved to be indigestible to the city councillors of the time and, notwithstanding that it would have been a unique solution, ahead of its time, it died a natural death, thus joining a number of similar initiatives in the graveyard of great but unrealised dreams.

Ten years’ later I commented in Citichat on an investigation into another ICDS that considered road-based (bus and mini-bus taxi) as well as rail options. I wrote that: "The inner city really suffers the lack of a decent, efficient, inexpensive and reliable public transportation system. In fact, if we consider our quest for ‘world class’ city status, this is a huge hole that just must be fixed." Gratz again: "… cities and towns alike will rise or fall on how transportation dilemmas are resolved. All development and redevelopment is shaped by transportation."

Little progress
Then in 2004, I wrote: "… Transportation … appears to have not progressed greatly during the past decade. In fact, the situation in various parts of the city looks, at best, chaotic!"

I went on to say that this was in spite of some significant work having been accomplished in that: "Two plans that will have a significant impact on the inner city have been developed. The first is the Integrated Transport Plan and the second is the Inner City Distribution System. The former proposes a strategy that should achieve, over time, ‘a safe and efficient transportation system, with a public transport focus, that will support a world class city; connecting businesses, people and places in a sustainable and cost effective manner and through this, improve the standard of living and quality of life of all the city's inhabitants and the overall competitiveness and growth of the City's economy."

The second of the plans was yet more research into an Inner City Distribution System. This examined how accessibility and connectivity within the inner city could be improved and how it could be integrated with the Gautrain, and so forth. The ICDS model used, tested 16-, 35-, and 55-seater mini-taxis/commuter buses as well as tram and light rail systems. The final proposal was for a road-based system and I stated, "if we go that route, we will be missing out on a probably never-to-be-repeated opportunity to put in place the kind of system that we will be able to show off in 2010 and beyond as evidence of our move to world class status".

Well, it's all about to start changing again! From the above it is clear that the issue of an integrated transport plan has been on Joburg's radar screen for an awfully long time and many of us have had the feeling for years that all we had, in fact, was a plan on the radar screen. As with so many other issues, something special was needed to actually galvanise action, to move the plan from the radar screen to ground-level implementation. In the case of our transportation plan, the “something special” was the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. Remember all those pictures of and comments from happy commuters at the previous event in Germany? Yet, even when forward motion became inevitable because of 2010, it was again checked by late changes to the master plan. It had not, apparently, previously been envisaged that the major component of our plan would be in the form not only of “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT), but that the BRT model would be what I call the "South American Model" or, more particularly that operating in Bogota, Colombia.

South American solution
This “South American solution” came about only in July/August last year as a result of the City's councillor responsible for transport visiting South America. The years of planning that led to the whole integrated transportation system and ICDS had to be re-jigged hurriedly in 12 to 18 months which is why, even with all the 2010 pressure, we are still in the starting blocks.

The basics of the Bogota model (which are a refinement of the earlier Brazilian Curitiba model) are the use on main “trunk” service routes of "large, articulated buses running on segregated bus ways with level boarding and closed stations". The 'large, articulated buses' will carry 90 passengers. Then there will be a complementary service of "regular, non-articulated 60-passenger buses with doors on both sides to allow operations in the segregated streets as well as on normal streets" and, finally, a feeder service of "midi buses that will operate in mixed traffic on feeder routes".

The proliferation of combi-taxis as we know them, will largely disappear, according to a report in Business Day newspaper earlier this week, "with the existing taxi and bus operators on the affected routes" becoming "the joint operators of the system". There was a good article and picture in the Financial Mail last week that showed what the Bogota model looks like but we haven't seen such illustrations superimposed on our own city grid. In fact, having seen and experienced the Curitiba model personally, I have difficulty in transposing it on to our generally narrow, congested streets, which is when both the practical difficulties and the effect it will have on the urban fabric will become real.

Proposed routing
Looking at the proposed routing in the inner city, I am greatly concerned that Toth's recollections of the past transportation planning approach are being revisited on us. With the greatest respect to those who have spent many midnight hours over the inner city routing, it looks to me like a transport system imposed on our grid rather than generated by the real needs of communities and places to be linked together.

A couple of our important central city north/south connector roads will become fully dedicated busways, totally displacing other vehicles and providing a tight central transport “box” framed by Rissik Street, west; Quartz Street, east; Smit/Wolmarans streets (north); and Main Street (south). To the east of this “box” is a large loop around the eastern inner city areas to just beyond Ellis Park, and a narrower loop westward stopping short of the “double-decker” highway - why the opportunity to connect to the Oriental Plaza and Fordsburg is not grasped is hard to understand.

Linkage to the broader Integrated Transport Network by way of BRT is provided at the south, west, east and north behind the Metro Centre.

Phase 1A of the overall transport plan must be in place by the Confederations Cup in 2009. This includes 40 kilometres of busway and 48 stations.

Phase 1B must be in place for 2010; it includes 86 kilometres and 102 stations. The other phases of the plan will roll out thereafter. Total budget, according to Business Day, is some R2-billion. This is a huge call, particularly in an era of other major 2010 construction commitments.

International Transit and Shopping Centre
The result of the “new” transportation approach is that many of the inner city streets will clearly change and, in turn, the “feel” of the inner city will be dramatically altered. But the other humongous change to the inner city will be the creation of the International Transit and Shopping Centre (ITSC), together with the development that it will inevitably attract.

This enormous project will stretch from Queen Elizabeth Bridge in the west to Joubert Park in the east and from Wolmarans Street in the north to Bree Street in the south - its footprint covers almost a quadrant of what we would have dubbed the old CBD. At some stage in the future it will probably also be extended to close the gap between the Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela bridges by decking over the railway lines to create a new, mixed use, mainly residential area.

The ITSC will provide:

  • Consolidated parking, ranking, and waiting areas for long-distance taxis that are now concentrated around Joubert Park and ranked in the Kazerne parking garages (which will be demolished) and those dispatched from the roof above Park Station - Park Central - and the long distance and international buses that rank both in Park Station and the surrounding streets of Braamfontein;
  • A major retail mall built along the lines of the retail “malls” of international airports such as at OR Tambo;
  • Major pedestrian linkages connecting to the Gautrain and Park stations, taxi and bus ranks; and
  • A multi-level structure that will incorporate all of the above and that will ultimately form a platform off which literally dozens of blocks of residential accommodation will be built. The project will obviously be built in numerous phases but the initial phase will be the first point above. The ultimate cost will run into billions of rands - the initial work over the next few years will probably be between half-a-billion and a billion rand.

Gautrain
The Gautrain station (R100-million) is already well under way opposite the northern end of Park Station, between Wolmarans and Smit streets. It will link into Park Station and the mega ITSC development. The Gautrain will run from here to Rosebank, Sandton and Marlboro, where it will branch off to link to OR Tambo International Airport.

From Marlboro it will also link to Midrand, Centurion, Pretoria and Hatfield. All of the Gautrain stations are already under construction and the transit nodes they are creating are attracting new investment - the R22-billion Gautrain is merely the conduit for massive development.

I recently had the good fortune to be invited to a presentation by ARUP, the global multi-disciplinary design and consulting group, on the occasion of the establishment of a specialist transit interchange unit in South Africa. The company showed us some of the transit projects that it had been associated with in the United Kingdom, Europe, Middle and Far East, and so on, and shared the philosophy that it has developed in addressing such projects.

Connect communities
It was an exciting display of just what can be achieved by developing around the concept of transportation rather than by merely providing transportation for its own sake. Key words that were illustrated from ARUP’s experience were accessibility, integration, developmental value, operations, sustainability and constructability. Again, the need to connect communities was emphasized.

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) provides some powerful principles for successful development around transit, emphasizing again that "transit is a tool to help achieve a community vision" - to be effective, partnerships with the development community need to be forged; "think development when you think transit"; "build a place not a project"; make retail development market-driven not transit-driven; just as people from every part of the economic spectrum use transit, people from every part of the economic spectrum like to live near transit. Some more earned wisdom from Toth: "Traffic planners and public officials need to foster land-use planning at the community level … this includes creating more attractive places that people will want to visit in both existing developments and new ones. A strong sense of place benefits the overall transportation system;" " View streets as places - streets take up as much as a third of a community's land yet, under planning policies of the past 70 years, people have given up their rights to public property".

Our proposed transportation intervention is going to change the look and the feel of the inner city and improve our mobility but unless it also "sustains our communities, protects our environment and helps restore our physical fitness and health" it will merely be meeting a knee jerk reaction fulfilling a passing need - the short-term transportation of 2010 visitors.

We need to heed and lean heavily on appropriate international experience if we are going to be going beyond short-term plaudits.

Regards, Neil


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