Road less trav­elled is what’s needed

Trans­port so­lu­tions should be part of a hu­man dis­ci­pline

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

IF THERE were an air­liner crash ev­ery 10 days for a year with­out a sin­gle sur­vivor, the death toll prob­a­bly wouldn’t quite match South Africa’s an­nual road car­nage.

But if an air­liner re­ally did crash ev­ery 10 days – just for a cou­ple of months, never mind a year – you could be sure the back­lash would soon ground ev­ery air­line un­til the pub­lic was sat­is­fied it was safe to fly again.

When it comes to the more than 17 000-a-year deaths on our roads, how­ever, so­ci­ety’s be­wil­der­ing ac­qui­es­cence sug­gests we are at best “numb” to what Cape Town trans­port spe­cial­ist Lisa Kane char­ac­terises as be­ing akin al­most to geno­cide.

Road trans­port is not, af­ter all, con­ven­tion­ally thought of as a bloody af­fair – and yet the fact that it re­ally is points to the ge­n­e­sis of Kane’s pro­fes­sional pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the chal­leng­ing task of hu­man­is­ing trans­port de­sign.

Roads and streets, the most heav­ily used pub­lic spaces of the modern world, she ar­gues, do not need to be the dan­ger­ous, hos­tile and costly thor­ough­fares be­queathed by the au­to­mo­tive era of 20th cen­tury ur­ban plan­ning.

Long be­fore Kane be­came an en­gi­neer, and later a spe­cial­ist in trans­port de­sign – her doc­tor­ate at UCT was on the en­gi­neer­ing his­tory of the un­fin­ished Fore­shore free­way sys­tem – she en­dured a hu­mil­i­a­tion as a pedes­trian the mem­ory of which re­mains a to­ken of her con­vic­tions.

She was a school­girl, then, on her way to classes in far­away Wolver­hamp­ton in the Mid­lands of Bri­tain.

Kane’s work­ing-class fam­ily had no car, and when she be­came the first in her fam­ily to get into a gram­mar school, her daily jour­ney in­volved two bus trips and a lot of walk­ing.

“I had to make my own way from an early age,” she re­called this week, “and I re­mem­ber once, walk­ing home in the rain, feel­ing re­ally af­fronted when a car went through a pud­dle in the road next to me and I got soaked. I re­mem­ber look­ing at the pud­dle and think­ing, ‘Who did this?’ and want­ing to find them and change it all. It was a feel­ing of be­ing quite alien­ated, and some­times I sup­pose I was re­ally scared, and felt vul­ner­a­ble and pow­er­less – though those weren’t the words I’d have used at the time.”

But the mem­ory stuck, and around it grew her think­ing about what cities are, and what they could be.

Kane’s pro­fi­ciency in maths and sci­ence steered her into en­gi­neer­ing, but her in­ter­est shifted to­wards the so­cial and other im­pli­ca­tions of trans­port plan­ning and the mak­ing of cities. Thus, hav­ing com­pleted her bur­sary con­di­tions work­ing in con­struc­tion, she changed lanes, and joined first one and then an­other Bri­tish con­sul­tancy spe­cial­is­ing in trans­port plan­ning.

“That was in the late 1980s, when there was a real ques­tion­ing of pri­vate trans­port, the role of the car and how we plan for trans­port and a new breed of cross-dis­ci­plinary trans­port plan­ner was emerg­ing.”

In the early 1990s, work­ing on a con­tract at West Bromwich county coun­cil, Kane met her hus­band- to- be Rob (he chairs the Cape Town City Im­prove­ment District), who also had a civil en­gi­neer­ing back­ground and shared her love of cities.

Her Zim­babwe- born hus­band had stud­ied at UCT and was keen to re­turn to Cape Town – which the cou­ple did in 1996. Kane be­gan a long as­so­ci­a­tion with UCT at that point – ini­tially in help­ing col­leagues Roger Behrens, the late Peter Wilkin­son and Mar­i­anne Van­der­schuren in de­vel­op­ing a mas­ter’s course in trans­port plan­ning which marked a de­par­ture from the en­gi­neer­ing-heavy trans­port cour­ses of the past, co-found­ing the Cen­tre for Trans­port Stud­ies at the cam­pus and em­bark­ing on her own PhD. She re­mains an hon­orary re­search as­so­ciate at UCT.

In 2012 she also helped found Open Streets – a civil so­ci­ety move­ment that places peo­ple at the cen­tre of road use – and has a con­tin­u­ing re­search in­ter­est in the in­ter­sec­tion of trans­port plan­ning and cli­mate change and the elab­o­ra­tion of low-car­bon trans­port strate­gies.

Bind­ing all these in­ter­ests to­gether is a conviction that ev­ery­thing about how we move in towns and cities, go to work, go shop­ping or get chil­dren to and from school can be done dif­fer­ently if we in­vest plan­ning and in­fra­struc­ture with hu­man-scaled val­ues.

En­cour­ag­ingly, she said, the ter­rain is chang­ing: the prospect of peo­ple shar­ing Uber rides, which has the scope of blur­ring the line be­tween pri­vate car and pub­lic trans­port, as well as shifts from the present Cape Town project of build­ing “bulb-outs” on cen­tral city pave­ments, the em­pha­sis in Trans­port Cape Town strate­gies on pub­lic trans­port ob­jec­tives and the city’s more open en­gage­ment on projects such as find­ing new so­lu­tions to the un­fin­ished Fore­shore free­way.

“Pub­lic trans­port is firmly on the agenda now and that cer­tainly was not the case when I came to Cape Town in 1996. It was a fight then, and the think­ing was still that road build­ing was the way to deal with trans­port. So there’s been a big shift in 20 years.”

A crit­i­cal im­ped­i­ment, how­ever, re­mains the “lore of en­gi­neer­ing”, a no­tion that traf­fic and in­fra­struc­ture could only be dealt with in the con­fines of a given tech­ni­cal frame­work. Yet, Kane ar­gued, by un­pack­ing the de­tail of en­gi­neer­ing prac­tice – as she did in her PhD – it can be seen as part of a his­tory of do­ing things in cer­tain ways and thus of be­ing changed.

“En­gi­neer­ing likes to think of it­self as an ap­plied sci­ence, time­less, ahis­tor­i­cal, ageo­graph­i­cal, but when you look at how it plays out, that does not make sense. It does change over time ac­cord­ing to where we are in the world. I am ar­gu­ing for en­gi­neers to ac­knowl­edge that they are in a so­cial, po­lit­i­cal con­text and that it is a hu­man dis­ci­pline, not an ap­plied sci­ence try­ing to make things as ef­fi­cient as pos­si­ble.”

No small part of the chal­lenge in re-en­gi­neer­ing so­lu­tions to mak­ing road­ways work bet­ter for peo­ple is that tor­ment­ing metaphor of air­liner crashes ev­ery 10 days.

“Each one of those vic­tims is a daugh­ter, a child, a hus­band,” Kane said. “That’s 17 000 hu­man tragedies ev­ery year. It’s hor­rific.”


Trans­port spe­cial­ist Lisa Kane ar­gues that with dif­fer­ent, bet­ter en­gi­neer­ing, road­ways can be hu­man­ised.

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