Toronto Star

Sandton’s traffic ‘experiment’

The suburb of Sandton, shown during a protest, hopes its EcoMobilit­y festival will wean people off cars.

- Robyn Dixon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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.


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