“Best practice” is in the eye of the pedestrian

Photo by Lisa Burnell | Open Streets Day Observatory 2013

A group of transport academics and activists based in different parts of the Americas convened an online discussion about mobility justice on December 10th, 2020. It was inspired by a document entitled ‘Untokening 1.0 — Principles of Mobility Justice’ produced by a similar group based in the US.

The principles aim to use “‘mobility injustice’ to name the intersectional unsafeties and attacks that people from marginalized groups experience in public spaces such as streets, transit systems, and the governance processes that lay claim to regulate those spaces.”[1]

The idea of translating those principles into Spanish came up last year and it was clear from the outset that interpreting the words was not enough and that a reading of Latin America’s ‘mobilities’ more broadly, would be required. The value of such process was made distressingly evident by the protests that unfolded, first in Chile as a result of a sudden train fare increase, and were followed by mass protests across the entire region.

During the online session, which launched the principles in Spanish, participants reflected on the differentiated vulnerability of humans depending on which body they inhabit when moving from point A to point B in urban settings. Some of the issues highlighted in the original document around infrastructure, safety and policy resonated strongly. Nevertheless, it was clear that realities of cities like Santiago and Mexico City are quite different from New York City and Chicago.

One of those issues with such different facets, which made me reflect on the reality of South African cities, is the concept of safety on the streets. While physical infrastructure is lauded as the panacea to protect and promote walking and cycling in many rich countries, it is clear that in Latin America, not unlike South African cities, safety from crime is perhaps a greater threat than traffic –though both are obviously real problems.

A clear point of consensus was nonetheless that very few cities worldwide are planned to protect what matters most: human life. Indeed, Manuel, one of the speakers spoke passionately about the importance of putting life at the centre of urban design, rather than expediency or profit –the entire virtual room could be heard agreeing. My immediate response was to say that we then needed to find a way of putting that simple, yet powerful and indisputable principle into a technical “concept” to which he responded: why do we have to perpetuate this idea that only technical language and jargon is the way to effect change on the ground?

Hacia Movilidades Justas | 10 December 2020

I have continued to reflect on this and despite my initial feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment for performing the role of the jaded and conservative voice that can’t see another way of effecting change, I really have struggled to see other ways of making such an important idea the axis of how a city continues to be re-built and re-designed. It seems I have unconsciously accepted that technical know-how is the only appropriate guideline to follow in order to improve our public life.

This is rather ironic, given my non-technical introduction to the world of mobility and the genuinely powerful experiences that were created through the process of organising Open Streets Days. Indeed, thinking about this has taken me back to the early days of Open Streets and how one of my fellow co-founders, Dr. Lisa Kane’s encouraged us clearly spell out that the work was to create streets ‘that embed respect’. In effect, that became the basis for the organisation’s manifesto. This sense of respect was evident during Open Streets days, when streets became free of cars and ruled by people on small wheels, but when Monday came around, the city seemed to have forgotten what that meant or felt like.

Last week’s conversation about ‘untokening’ and mobility justice in Latin America has reminded me how important and urgent it is to find ways to step out of those academic and authority driven paradigms and to embrace the knowledge, experience and real practice of those who are using the space, of those who are moving around and whose lives are often the ones under threat.

In Cape Town, it is clear that those walking the streets on a daily basis would know best. And so I wonder: why is our tendency –and here I acknowledge guilt, because even on a bicycle I entertain those thoughts- to judge pedestrians careless when they are not walking on the sidewalk or crossing at traffic lights?

It turns out that technical expertise is often at odds with reality and this is clear in relatively simple, yet extremely dangerous, things like pedestrian crossings meaning little more than decoration to motorists (when was the last time a car stopped for you to walk across one of those?), to more shameful and equally lethal environments with no sidewalks or construction sites that push the pedestrians onto the road wit no qualms.

Clearly this has to do with the invisibility of a large portion of the population and as Manuel would say, having priorities in the wrong places. Indeed, on a recent publication by WWF, mobility expert Gail Jennings reflects on how walking, the most common form of mobility in our city, is disregarded in the best of times. So much so, that during lockdown, walking (and cycling for that matter) was not even considered a form of transport. In effect, in a twisted way, they were forbidden unless they were a form of exercise.

We certainly have a long way to go, and though not overnight, I am hopeful that change is possible. At the macro level, there are exciting tools emerging such as the Best Practice Guide on Walking and Cycling in African Cities by Walk21 and UN-Habitat and ITDP’s Pedestrians First online tool. UNEP also recently launched the Africa network for walking and cycling. Closer to home, initiatives to test more pedestrian-friendly spaces by GTP and Open Streets and Our Future Cities as well as planning processes in eThekwini for an “inner city clean, green and safe for all” could unlock some changes in the long term and bring a much desired sense of hope. Pedestrians (which we all are at some point in the day) will ultimately be the judge.

[1] The Untokening http://www.untokening.org/

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.