Bridging the Pedestrian Gap: Johannesburg’s attempt to pedestrianize a car-oriented city

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager, and Garret Gantner
Johannesburg, 13 April 2016

Another step in the implementation of its long-declared Transit Oriented Development (TOD) strategy, the City of Johannesburg is promoting a series of interventions to ease traffic and increase pedestrian safety, particularly along the BRT transit lines (known as the 'Corridors of Freedom') constituting the backbone of the TOD strategy. But however well-intentioned, it is still necessary to interrogate the quality of these interventions, to ensure they accomplish what they were intended to achieve and do not perpetuate problematic models.

Under the purview of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), a new pedestrian bridge or 'skywalk' is currently planned over one of the Corridors, the ‘Empire-Perth Corridor’, over the prominent intersection between the University of Johannesburg campus and a shopping mall. Intended to “enable pedestrians to travel on foot or by bicycle between the university campus and neighboring residences, Campus Square shopping centre and nearby restaurants and shops,” the bridge is seen by the City as a new landmark that could improve tourism in the area. Though the projects are vastly different, it has even been compared by some local newspapers to New York’s celebrated High Line because of the proposed landscaping to be included atop it.

The bridge’s design, however, raises many questions about the comprehensiveness of the approach, especially with regard to existing pedestrian and social infrastructure. Its long, non-descript ramps afford little consideration for pedestrian behavioural patterns, which currently exist along sidewalks which are undersized, in disrepair, or in many cases non-existent. The devotion of extensive resources to a flyover bridge instead thus seems somewhat misdirected. Improved pedestrianaccess to an existing bridge just 400m down the road could yet save significant resourceswhile improving the pedestrian experience in the area as a whole. Moreover, minibus taxis, which stop at the corner, do not seem to have been included in the design in any significant way either, so promising to further rather than ameliorate congestion.

Another concern is the further erosion of public space. Although billed as a pedestrian-friendly intervention, the conception of a flyover bridge to solve vehicle-pedestrian conflicts inherently favours the car: missing the important distinction between an urban boulevard and a highway, conceiving of the space on the ground as sacred for cars, and making it the role of pedestrians and cyclists to get out of their way. The project also proposes to install fencing along stretches of sidewalk nearby, a way of militarizing the street ostensibly to protect pedestriansand prevent jaywalking, but in the process revoking public space from them and handing it over to vehicular traffic.

Despite the above concerns, what gives cause for optimism is that in the community feedback meeting on the proposed design, residents of the area, the vast majority of them non-experts in urban design principles, flatly rejected the rationale for the bridge as a starting point and requested a review of the project by the JDA. When the citizenry of a well-resourced middle- and upper-class neighbourhood, most of whom own cars themselves and use them on a daily basis, advocates for greater restrictions on vehicular traffic and demands better ‘pedestrianization’ approaches, there is some reason to believe that cities may evolve over time to a more balanced design.

The bridge proposal underlines just how difficult it is to reshape transportation in the city in general, even when intentions are sound; Creating a truly transit-oriented and pedestrian friendly city may require a shift away from seeing projects as isolated interventions, and towards a broader, more participatory, and further integrated vision.

Photo credit: JDA

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