Sandton’s traffic ‘experiment’
The suburb of Sandton, shown during a protest, hopes its EcoMobility festival will wean people off cars.
Innocent Mofumade is standing by a traffic light in broiling heat wearing a grey wool hat over his dreadlocks, a fluorescent green vest bearing the words “Festival Guide” and a gentle, fixed smile.
But the “festival” in Sandton, South Africa’s upscale commercial and banking capital, isn’t particularly festive. It consists of street closings, traffic jams, a heavy police presence and high metal barriers that look ready to hold back a rioting crowd.
It’s actually EcoMobility, a giant month-long traffic “experiment” (in the words of one city bureaucrat) launched in the Johannesburg suburb, with little warning, to reduce the use of automobiles.
Mofumade, 23, is an unemployed volunteer with just a few days’ training. The main thing he was told was that people were going to be mad.
The trainers’ advice? “They told us to always be calm, always put a smile on your face,” he says.
With few cycling paths or reliable public transportation options, authorities opted for shock therapy to wean people off their cars.
Mofumade’s job — and that of about 200 other volunteers, most of them jobless young people — is to handle the enraged drivers. He stands by a metal traffic barrier blocking access to one of Sandton’s usually busy thoroughfares and offers advice on which roads are open.
A car swerves to a halt, and a man with dark glasses and a scowl rolls down the window. Mofumade approaches softly, like an intruder trying to avoid waking a large dog, and tells him the circuitous route that will be required to get off the blocked street. The man mutters a curt thank you and speeds off.
The city is offering free minibuses for pedestrians during the experiment. They occasionally drift by, mostly empty. “Eish, it’s hot,” says Mofumade, using the quintessentially South African expression conveying bother or frustration.
The festival is supposed to encourage people to cycle or walk, despite the heat, but the lanes dedicated for cyclists and pedestrians are empty for the most part. Transportation Minister Dipuo Peters said recently that the EcoMobility festival would change perceptions that walking was only for the poor.
A long line of cars make U-turns as Mofumade stands by the barrier waving them away. A van driver asks to pass, but Mofumade explains that the blocked street has been converted to one-way. “This thing of yours is so boring. It can’t work. It won’t work,” the van driver says irritably before pulling away.
“This is the kind of people we deal with out here,” Mofumade says.
Suddenly, a shiny red car speeds around the barrier on the wrong side of the road. Mofumade runs toward the car, waving his arms, but the driver just screeches past him going the wrong way up the street.
“Eish! Eish! See that guy now,” Mofumade says, crestfallen. The driver is just one of many that day who have ignored him and sped past. “It’s going to cause an accident, but it won’t be my fault. That’s what I’ve been asking myself. What if a car comes through and hits another car? That won’t be my fault.”
He speaks as though he’s afraid he might be blamed for failing to hold back the tide.