Below, the first in a series of what I hope will be many videos capturing the experience of Cape Town’s pedestrian and cycling environment from an urban planning standpoint.

In this video, you can see how, even on what is arguably Cape Town’s flagship pedestrian route, four motor traffic cycles go by on Buitengracht between each of the very short pedestrian/cyclist cycles.

This was taken at Waterkant St./Buitengracht St., around lunchtime, when pedestrian flows are at their strongest between morning and evening peaks. The pedestrian/cycling route, formerly called the Fanwalk, is now officially known as the Remembrance Walk, in honour of President Nelson Mandela; however, the second name does not feature on any prominent signage, and so the route is still commonly known as the Fanwalk.

The Fanwalk has made a measurable difference in walking and cycling along its length, as it provides a safe, pleasant and rewarding walking and cycling route that links Cape Town Station, in the centre of the Central Business District (CBD), with the Sea Point Promenade, a very popular recreational and fitness destination, taking in Cape Town Stadium, Green Point Urban Park and a popular restaurant and retail strip along the way.

Moreover, the Fanwalk constitutes a very convenient and rewarding commuter cycling link between the CBD and Sea Point/Green Point and suburbs beyond (the Atlantic Seaboard). These densely-populated suburbs (and, in particular, Sea Point) are among the only major, high-rise, high-density middle class suburbs in South Africa, where automobility, suburbanism and affluence remain tightly linked. Indeed, because the residential areas immediately bordering the largely commercial CBD are sloping, some quite steeply, whereas the Atlantic Seaboard is a perfectly flat ride from town, Sea Point and Green Point are a hub for middle-class* commuter cycling in central Cape Town.

So, it matters that, even on this one pedestrian/cyclist priority route, the wait for a pedestrian green light is so long as to effectively teach all comers to cross when they please and as soon as they dare. They will stand there, as I do when I’m on my bike, watching motorists come and go, and come and go, and come and go, and come and go – for several consecutive minutes – before the light changes, and they are allowed to walk 30 or so metres to the destination they have been watching for 200 or more seconds.

This is troubling to me, because of the disjuncture between the physical design of the rest of the route, and the message embodied in the timing on the lighting at this intersection, and what this tells us about once-off construction versus long-term maintenance.

I assert that once-off construction in Cape Town is a much less faithful guide to the city’s underlying priorities – i.e., not only as stated in official texts, but in the attitudes and habits of its personnel on the ground – than long-term maintenance is.

The Fanwalk, for example, was beautifully designed and executed as, inter alia, a teaching space, where the soft modes (cycling and walking) would be fostered and rewarded, and where walking would be presented as a reasonable and sensible choice for movement both within and through the space. This is reflected in the provision of shade, benches, points of interest, landscaping, adequate space, high-quality materials, and priority at intersections (at the Cape Quarter crossing and the Green Point circle).

However, where this pedestrian route meets a busy arterial road for motors, pedestrian priority evaporates. The difference is so sharp that Capetonians, living as they do in a physical culture of very low obedience to traffic signalling, revert instantly and easily to the norm prevailing in the rest of the city, which is one of pragmatic crossing, negotiation of priority through eye-contact, and chancing it.

This is immediately apparent in the video. At the start of the video, you can see a few seconds of green light for pedestrians/cyclists. Then four pulses of motor traffic. In between and throughout each, pedestrians and cyclists filter through, especially where the motor queue for an intersection further on reaches this crossing, forcing cars to slow down.

The reason pedestrians do this, of course, is because it works better than the alternative. Waiting does not reward them. Waiting does not even tempt them. I can corroborate this, even though I almost always wait for green lights on my bicycle (and am possibly alone in this), since waiting for pedestrian infrastructure does not make me feel safer, and doesn’t get me across the intersection at a reasonable pace.

It should be pointed out that there is a pedestrian bridge at this intersection, but it is clear to me that its purpose is to serve major events (the Fanwalk and Stadium were constructed at the same time, to host the 2010 World Cup). It offers no access to wheelchair users or cyclists, and because Buitengracht is an arterial road, with a high height clearance, the bridge is quite high up. This is to say nothing of the fact that the timing at intersections up and down the route are just as bad.

I hope to return to the topic of Cape Town’s pragmatic culture of pedestrian-motorist interaction at intersections. For now, it suffices to say that such a culture should be viewed as an adaptation to a profoundly problematic streetscape on the part of pedestrians and cyclists, who know that the system they move around in does not and cannot keep them safe, even where it pretends to (since South Africa has the world’s seventh-highest road traffic death rate). Of course, pedestrians for whom it is absolutely necessary to cross in relative safety do have the choice of waiting for a green light (although, again, the system is so generally unworthy of trust that many will assume, as I do in new areas, that the pedestrian signal is never coming).

The lethality, though, comes in when motorists do not strictly observe the rules of the road, and adopt the same practical approach as pedestrians, despite the fact that the road system gives them priority in practice and in planning. This is observable at any intersection in Cape Town, at any time of day or night, with this particular intersection included.

It simply isn’t an issue for motorists to stop across the pedestrian/cyclist crossing in the video, for the length of the brief and flickering pedestrian/cyclist green light. When I have confronted motorists, telling them to move on or back and stop obstructing this one piece of infrastructure, it is (as I knew for a fact it would be) at best amusing, and at worst physically enraging, for motorists to consider that this is a space, in time, they have no right to.

I hope to post more videos illustrating these points, in support of my contention that in South Africa’s best walking and cycling city, on its flagship walking and cycling route, at an intersection developed at great cost, even there, we cannot build a single crossing that convinces pedestrians to wait for the green light; we cannot convince anyone, even here, that the system is on their side enough to warrant a bit of patience. The system isn’t on their side, doesn’t keep them safe even if obeyed (at great cost and inconvenience), and does not warrant a bit of patience. The system, as I hope to show in a subsequent video, sends oncoming motor traffic through pedestrian crossings on a pedestrian green light, just for starters, as if motorists in this country would yield to pedestrians under any circumstances. 

*I see what I take to be working-class people, in overalls, etc., commuting on this route by bicycle, but do not yet know enough about their journeys to say whether it is a hub of working-class cycling, although Sea Point in particular is home to a somewhat hidden working class population that is surprisingly large, and growing.

My first foray into capturing central Cape Town's streetscapes from a pedestrian and cyclist point of view, now with annotations and field notes. Click To Tweet