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Transportation: the key to unlocking quality urban form

Posted On Tuesday, 30 October 2007 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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The proposed transportation intervention is going to change the look and the feel of the inner city and improve our mobility but unless it also does a whole lot more, it will merely be meeting a knee jerk reaction fulfilling a passing need, the short-term transportation of 2010 visitors

Gary TothI said last week that in ten years time, the inner city of Johannesburg will be unrecognisable from the city of today! One of the reasons for this will be ‘transportation’ 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 of you who have spent time in most European and US cities will have been struck by the choice of a variety of public transport on offer that makes it a pleasure to connect 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 our current situation through the Gautrain, the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRT), the Inner City Distribution System (ICDS), 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 transportation planning with the right motives and objectives. Gary Toth, a US transportation planner for over thirty years 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”    

Roberta Brandes Gratz, “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 recognize 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 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 Inner City Distribution System (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 which 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.”

Roberta Brandes Gratz again; “…..cities and towns alike will rise or fall on how transportation dilemmas are resolved. All development and redevelopment is shaped by transportation.”

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, etc. 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 World Cup! Remember all those pictures and comments  of 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 Transport’ (BRT), but, that the BRT model would be what I call the “South American Model” or, more particularly that operating in Bogota, Colombia. This ‘South American solution’ came about only in July/August last year as a result of the city’s councilor responsible for transportation 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 normal streets” and, finally, a feeder service of “midi buses that will operate in mixed traffic in feeder routes.” The proliferation of combi-taxis as we know them, will largely disappear according to a report in Business Day 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 pic 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 onto our generally narrow congested streets which is when both the practical difficulties and the impact it will have on the urban fabric will become real. Looking at the proposed routing in the inner city, I am greatly concerned that Gary 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, west;  Quartz, east and Smit/Wolmarans (north) and Main (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 Confederation Cup, 2009, this includes 40 kms of busway and 48 stations and Phase 1B must be in place for 2010 – 86 kms 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.

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 br 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 (1) consolidated parking ranking and waiting areas for long-distance taxis currently 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.; (2) a major retail mall built along the lines of the retail ‘malls’ of international airports such as at OR Tambo (3) major pedestrian linkages connecting to the Gautrain and Park stations, taxi and bus ranks and (4) a multi-level structure that will incorporate all of the above and that will ultimately form a platform off which literally dozens blocks of residential accommodation  will be built. The project will obviously be built in numerous phases but the initial phase will be that marked 1 above. The ultimate cost will run into billions of rand – the initial work over the next few years will probably be between a half a billion and a billion rand!

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-development ITSC development. The Gautrain will run from here to Rosebank, Sandton and Marlboro where it will branch off the 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. They showed us some of the transit projects that they have been associated with in the UK, Europe, Middle and Far East, etc and shared the philosophy that they have developed in addressing such projects. 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 their experience were accessibility; integration; developmental value; operations; sustainability and constructability and, 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 Gary 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!

Last modified on Friday, 16 May 2014 14:39

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