Congested Sandton: EcoMobility to Migrate users to public transport – 30% target

Lisa Seftel, executive for Transport at the City of Joburg, says October has been set aside to migrate Sandton motorists to public transport. The city hopes to get 30% of drivers using public transport. Seftel says the city has planned park-and-rides, and built infrastructure for cycle lanes and pedestrian walkways. She says more than 400 delegates from major cities around the world will attend the Festival in Johannesburg.

Lisa Seftel is the Executive for Transportation in the City of Johannesburg. It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Lisa. Already, I’ve heard complaints from people saying that there’s a problem on the Sandton roads this morning. What’s going on?

Well, this morning we were doing a dry run really, for a number of dedicated transport lanes, which are going to start operating on the 5th of October. We were testing them to see that it would work. We were laying out the cones but remember, when we start on the 5th of October we’ll be putting public transport there while today, we were just doing a test run. That’s why there was increased congestion. The idea is that from next week, if people really do use public transport such as going to the Park & Ride at Bright Water Commons, or Park & Ride at Monte Casino and Cresta, etcetera… When they come on these roads, coming from the west to Sandton, it will be a real smooth ride and they won’t be stuck in the traffic. Similarly, if they’re coming from Catherine Avenue, we’re also going to be putting up a dedicated lane for buses and minibus taxis.

We’re talking about what is referred to as EcoMobility Festival. It’s happening for the entire month of October. What is the concept behind it? What is the EcoMobility concept?

EcoMobility is really, about eco-friendly ways of travelling, which we in the city regard as walking, cycling, and using public transport so that there are low emissions and we’re able to reduce congestion. One of the important objectives of the Executive Mayor and why he really wanted the EcoMobility Festival to be in Sandton is because we also need to decongest Sandton. Sandton is really growing, but if everybody wants to come to Sandton using a private car, it will stop growing because Sandton would become a parking lot (or it already is). We’re really hoping and we’re doing a lot of construction work. If you look along West Street, we’re putting in a bike lane. We’re improving the sidewalks. We’re putting in a dedicated public transport lane, which will be permanent – all parts of the EcoMobility legacy – so it will make it easier for people to use public transport, walk, or cycle and then reduce the reliance on private cars for commuter trips.

It will also make it easier if certain people don’t use their private cars. For those who have to like salespersons and deliveries, it will also make it easier for them.

How many vehicles are we talking about, on a daily basis in Sandton, especially during peak hours?

Well, the peak hour is from about 6:30 until 10:00 – 75,000 cars trying to get into Sandton.

Of course, this leads to congestion, as you said.

Absolutely.

Now, for the month of October, you hope that that congestion will reduce substantially. What happens beyond that?

As I said earlier on, we’re doing quite a lot of legacy projects. In a sense, we’re giving people a chance to experience public transport, walking, and cycling and we do hope that for many people, they will see the benefits and there will be a permanent shift. Obviously, we’ll continue to do construction so that by November 2017, we’ll be introducing the Rea Vaya from the CBD, Sunninghill, Ivory Park, Midrand, and Alexandra. That should really be able to make Sandton much more dynamic and vibrant. We also hope that business will turn their businesses inside out. Instead of looking inside, they’ll be able to look onto the street and create a more dynamic street life and a more dynamic street life is critical for safety in the street.

Has this concept been tried anywhere else? I know that the major cities around the world are all having problems with carbon emissions and congestion etcetera, and lost productivity in the process. Has this been tried anywhere else?

There is quite growing tradition of two things, which is similar to what we’re doing. One of them is car-free days but we’re doing a (sort of) car-free month. Last month, the Mayor of Paris organised one in Paris. The other thing, which is becoming very popular, is just to close off streets for a particular period of time and allow people to walk on them, cycle, dance, or do aerobics and that’s also what we’re going to be doing on most of the weekends during the EcoMobility Festival.

If you live in Johannesburg, you’d know all of us love our cars. Typically, the complaint is that the public transport is not enough or is not reliable, and that is why we use our own vehicles. Once the city starts with these types of changes, is it ready to provide us with public transport?

It’s very interesting who the ‘we’ is, because the bottom line is that the majority of people in Johannesburg don’t have cars. They’re actually using minibus taxis and then they use buses and so on, so let’s be a little careful about who the ‘we’ is. Yes, there is an aspiration for people to use private cars. Let me just say that as the City of Johannesburg, we also do an opinion survey and a household survey, and reliability of public transport comes out at about 60 percent, so it’s not unreliable. Minibus taxis with a short left is actually, a very reliable and convenient form of public transport but the city is constantly trying to upgrade their public transport offering. As you know, the Rea Vaya is expanding and increasing. Rio Bus: I’m sure many of your listeners have seen the new buses. They have duel fuel. They’re green. They have low emission and over the next two years, we’re introducing about 200 new Metro buses. The Gautrain continues to improve and has plans for expansion and yes, we’re also working very closely with the minibus taxi industry to improve their offering as well as to improve their reach to areas, which traditionally, they do not cover.

What we’re talking about is happening in Sandton, Johannesburg but many have a knock-on effect on traffic elsewhere. That’s one other thing, which we need to focus on. I’m sure if it will but I’m imagining that that may be the case. It might happen that way.

We’ve had a very extensive consultation process and we did some studies even before we started the consultation process. In fact, we don’t expect a ripple effect outside of the broader Sandton for the EcoMobility Festival. We are fairly comfortable that if only 30 percent of people make a shift to use public transport during October that in fact, for other people, there should be less congestion and their trips should be smoother.

I gather that the EcoMobility Festival is international, and that you will be having delegates from elsewhere coming to South Africa. Tell me more about the event.

Sure. The first time the EcoMobility Festival was held was in Suwon in South Korea. The festival lasts for the entire month but there are different components. The international focus is really, for the week of the 5th of October to the 9th of October where will be having many dialogues and discussions as well as many opportunities for members of the public and stakeholders to come and debate these kinds of issues. For example, the future of Uber, shared vehicles, bike share, and whether you can retrofit cities etcetera. To date, I think about 82 participants and over seven Mayors from different parts of the world will be coming to join us in that week. In other weeks of the festival, we have more local activities. We had an activity where people can walk between Sandton and Alexandra. We have a Freedom Ride between Sandton and Yeoville in Hillbrow. We have a sports weekend and right at the end of the month on the 31st, there’ll be an Orlando Pirates/Chiefs derby as well as the rugby final. We want to have both of those events live, on the big screens in the streets of Sandton.

I know there’s been talk about putting up cycling lanes and new infrastructure, which was put in place to assist in encouraging people to either cycle, walk, or use public transport. Are those things happening in Sandton as we speak? Are you putting up that infrastructure?

Absolutely. I haven’t been to look at it this morning, but if you go down West Street, it’s beginning to look good. One side of West Street will be done before the festival. After the festival, we’ll do the same thing (cycle lanes and broader sidewalks) on the other side of West Street as well as in Maude Street.

We know that projects of this nature do happen. We have festivals and we all get excited in South Africa – receiving guests from elsewhere – and then, everything works well for the duration of whatever the event is and thereafter, we go back to our old ways. How are you going to try to make sure that we at least adopt the new changes, which we’d like to see happening here?

Well, that’s really a challenge, both from the Government’s side as well as from an ordinary resident’s side. That is why we’re working quite hard to have a legacy as well as to create excitement and exciting events, so that we can see that behavioural shift, which we hope will occur. As I said, we are continually doing activities – infrastructure as well as promotional activities. For example, the Freedom Ride is like a social ride. It commemorates the legacy of Nelson Mandela, and this is our fourth one. We really encourage people to register. We’ve had about 6000 people coming and already to date, over 1500 people have registered. That’s about creating a sense of occupying the streets, social cohesion, linking communities between Alexandra and Sandton, and between Soweto and Johannesburg CBD.

I think those are important things, which will continue, and show that as South Africans we can be proud of our country and the unity we’re creating.

Alternatively, there’s also the view that change is good. Intentions are there. They are great but maybe disruptive and they may disrupt the economic activity of Sandton. How do you compensate for that? Are there any benefits beyond the idea around EcoMobility?

There’s something about disruption, which is difficult and wrong and there’s something about slight disruption, which can create innovation, be critical, and force people to do things in new ways. We’ve made certain that we’re not going to create dysfunctionality in Sandton. If anybody wants to come to Sandton with their private car to their original parking lot, they can do so. We are not stopping them from doing it. We are making it more difficult to do it and they might have to change their routes slightly, but they would still be able to do it. On the other hand, we’re making it easier for people who want to experiment with public transport or cycling.

Is there any medium to long-term economic benefit (at least, for Sandton)?

Absolutely. A decongested Sandton and a Sandton where it’s easier to get around would, we believe, create an ongoing impetus for development, increased densification, and maybe even mixed routes with more residential etcetera. More importantly, it will protect Sandton from people who want to leave it to other parts of the city. As a city, we believe that we have the CBD of Johannesburg, which we value and want to upgrade, and we continue to do that, and Sandton as well. However, we don’t want to see a proliferation of dispersed retail and business sectors because we believe that the best way to service our people is through a compact city.

And the businesspeople of Sandton agree with you. You said you’ve had widespread stakeholder engagements with various stakeholders to make sure that they understand what you are trying to achieve.

I would say yes. For the last three or four years, we’ve been working with the Sandton Management District, which represents the developers and property owners here. The whole idea of coming up with a proper transport plan for Sandton is something we’ve worked on together with them, and that they see the EcoMobility Festival as part of. If you remember, Sandton was never meant to be a CBD. When I was a child, I came to school here and it was an urban area. It’s always been a challenge to be able to take an area, which wasn’t initially seen as a CBD, and put it into a CBD. The streets are too wide. There aren’t enough of what are called ‘mid blocks’, but we do have a plan that ultimately, we’ll be able to create better mobility for private cars, public transport, walking, and cycling.

Just for perspective purposes, what is the contribution of Sandton to the country’s economy – if not, at least to Johannesburg? I know it’s a very important centre but I don’t have the numbers. I have no sense of the influence on the economy.

Yes, and now you catch me out because I’m not sure that I have those numbers either. We do say, as a city, that Sandton is the richest square mile in Africa. Remember, it is the financial hub. We’re sitting here at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and all the big banks have their offices here, so I’m sure that the biggest of any single place in South Africa that contributes to the GDP is here.

Let’s go back to those who want to go on the Freedom Rides. You say you register. Where do you go and where do people go, who want more information?

We have a website, www.ecomobility.org where people can go and then the Freedom Ride is www.freedomride.org.za, which is where people can go to register specifically for the Freedom rides. Additionally, the website is the same for the dialogues. Participation is free but we do encourage registration so that we can anticipate numbers.

Lisa Seftel, thank you very much and good luck with the project.

Thanks a lot.

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