South Africa’s green dreams are made of this – By Sandra Prüfer

Mr Mpho Parks Tau, Mayor of Johannesburg (in Green Helmet) with other EcoMobility riders/Photo:ICLEI
Mr Mpho Parks Tau, Mayor of Johannesburg (in Green Helmet) with other EcoMobility riders/Photo:ICLEI

EcoMobility World Festival in Johannesburg sends strong car-less urban transport message to UN Climate Summit in Paris

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Johannesburg may be a city built on the profits of gold, but Mpho Parks Tau, Mayor of South Africa’s largest city and financial capital, has a green dream. His dream is to make “public transport, walking and cycling more accessible, safe, attractive and cool.”

“For our economy to grow and flourish, we need to decongest our roads and have fewer people spending time in their cars stuck in traffic,” he said at the kick-off of Africa’s first EcoMobility World Festival on October 4.

During the festival, Sandton central business district–often referred to as Africa’s richest square mile–is partially closed to private cars and converted into an ecomobile zone, not just for a car-free day as recently in Paris, but the entire month. Leading by example, Johannesburg’s dynamic 45-year old mayor encourages the city’s 4.8 million residents to go ecomobile as well and “show that is possible for the residents of Joburg to break away from the habit of using private vehicles.“

Transport accounts for 31% of South Africa’s energy consumption and 16% of its CO2 emissions. A relevant and growing share of it comes from transport in urban areas. According to Tau, the promotion of ecomobility, which means prioritizing walking, cycling, public transport and shared mobility, is a key part of the city’s action on climate change, air pollution and social inequalities.

Supported by the provincial and national governments, the city’s forward-thinking initiative puts Johannesburg on the world map of city-driven climate change action. The opening of a new bike path between up-scale Sandton and the low-income township of Alexandra and the “Streets Alive – Jozi W-R-1” parade at the festival launch underlined the link between ecomobility and social inclusion.

“Cycling should become a way of life, our municipalities must become sustainable,” said South Africa’s Transport Minister Dipuo Peters, announcing further national policies in support of ecomobility. South Africa is not only Africa’s largest economy, but also the continent’s biggest polluter, ranking among the 15 largest CO2 emitters worldwide.

“We contribute to climate change systematically through carbon emissions, and the reliance by Joburg commuters on single-passenger vehicles is an inefficiency we must confront,” Executive Mayor Parks Tau declared in his State of the City address in May.

Johannesburg Declaration

By 2050, two thirds of the world population will live in cities. No greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy will be successful without addressing low carbon urban transport solutions. Nearly 500 South African and international mobility experts and local government leaders affirmed this last Friday at the conclusion of the EcoMobility Dialogues (Oct.5-9) in Sandton by releasing the Johannesburg Declaration on Ecomobility in Cities. It calls on all spheres of government to adopt policies that replace car-centered cities with people-friendly ones, invest in lower carbon and zero carbon energy for vehicles and engage with residents and employers to discourage the use of private vehicles.

Tau will bring the declaration to world leaders at the UN Climate Summit in December, conveying the message that urban transport is a key to address climate change. “We cities are not going to Paris to say that climate change is a complex issue to solve. We’ll bring solutions”, he said.

A 5-year review and step-by-step improvement mechanism, delivery of the promised deposits into the Green Climate Fund and direct access of cities to financial resources for the expansion of public transport system are also requests of the declaration.

Reclaiming the streets from cars

During Johannesburg’s month-long EcoMobility festival, the streets of Sandton are closed or semi-closed to cars, while new bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways, a public transport loop around Sandton, a park & ride system and a mini-bus shuttle service offer alternatives to residents. Joburgers are still able to use their private vehicles, but are encouraged to change the way they move and try out public transport and the extended Rea Vaya Rapid Transit Bus service.

The first edition of EcoMobility experiment took place in 2013 in a residential neighbourhood of Suwon, South Korea. The festival is the brainchild of Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, former ICLEI Secretary General. ICLEI- Local Government for Sustainability is a network of over 1,000 cities, towns and metropolises committed to building a sustainable future.

The hosting City of Johannesburg, which has been an ICLEI member for 19 years, selected this time the affluent business district of Sandton, one of the most congested areas in South Africa. Sandton is home of the JSE Securities Exchange and major banks (South Africa’s Wall Street), an opulent shopping mall and gated residential estates. More than 75,000 cars drive in and out of Sandton each day.

According to city officials, the number of commuter traffic in the precinct has increased 3.4% per year. There is no more road capacity to accommodate growth of this rate. “With more office, hotel and shopping capacity being built, Sandton will become a huge parking lot”, Tau explained.

He says the EcoMobility Festival’s first week has been a success. There has been an 8% increase in the Gautrain bus and train use and the city received positive feedback from cyclists testing the new cycle infrastructure. Local media reported mixed reactions from commuters.

In South Africa’s buzzling financial hub, the festival is less an event of people enthusiastically pouring out into the streets and socially connecting as in Suwon’s residential neighborhood or at the Open Streets Days in Cape Town. The Vaya Moja mobile app was developed to alleviate concerns and give details of park and rides, bus and train schedules, bike share spots and events. In addition to an exhibit where people can test drive innovative ecomobile vehicles, the festival features a series of street events, such as a carnival, a public viewing of the Rugby World Cup final and a freedom ride with about 4,000 cyclists last Sunday.

While recreational and collective cycling is becoming more popular and trendy among younger Joburgers, the ridership is still miniscule compared to European cities. It is estimated that half of the residents in Copenhagen bike to work or school. Ahead of the EcoMobility Festival, students of the University of Johannesburg conducted interviews with local cyclists in the recently revitalized hipster Braamfrontein neighborhood in downtown. They complained about the car-centric culture, traffic safety and lack of bike lanes in other districts.

“My impression is that change is in the air, because people realize that a continuation of car traffic and related congestion increase cannot work. Giving priority to walking, cycling and public transport benefits all, not only richer people in cars,” said Monika Zimmermann, ICLEI Deputy Secretary.

The aim of the EcoMobility Festival, she says, is to create a platform for public dialogue, exchange of ideas and raising awareness. “Mayor Parks Tau has a clear strategy for transforming the local transport system and the festival helps the city to launch a new phase of it.”


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