Photo credit: Daring Cities

Kirsten Wilkins admires places like Paris, where bike lanes have sprung up in response to COVID-19. And Milan, with its expansive piazza that affords people the luxury of space and the ability to move about safely. “But that is not the story of Cape Town,” she candidly remarked at the Daring Cities recent session on Active Mobility. 

As Managing Director of Open Streets Cape Town, the city Wilkins knows all too well is one where “some people walk faster to be safe… some of us can’t travel at night or unaccompanied.” A city where bike jackings and muggings are an everyday occurrence and “our streets have been purposely used to divide our people by race and class,” and are part of an ongoing narrative about disposition.

Despite this gloomy outlook, Wilkins offered a much brighter vision for Cape Town moving forward that involves “radically increasing the ownership of streets by people across the city, with the ultimate goal of bridging the social and institutional divide.” One way this can be achieved she said is through the greater use of active transport and reducing the number of cars on the road, “enabling the whole citizenry to tackle climate change.”

The starting point for this journey is to rethink current transport planning, which she says is dominated by engineering guidelines and standards and a “one size fits all approach made for everyone but is good for no one.” Limited perspectives such as promoting electric vehicles as a solution to the city’s environmental challenges are simply not good enough, she opined. “Transportation needs to be more.”

Rather than wait for transportation solutions from conventional, old school approaches to materialize, Open Streets’ response has been to begin solving Cape Towns’ mobility challenges through such citizen-led, ground-up solutions as the Bike Bus.

Bike Bus involves groups of commuters cycling together in and out of the city at prescheduled times and along predetermined routes, as a way to safely navigate roads dominated by cars and neighborhoods plagued by gangs. 

It is a solution in which “social infrastructure” (as Wilkins describes it),  effectively fills the void created by a lack of physical infrastructure. 

The Gugulethu Bike Bus is Cape Town’s longest and most complex route, comprised of six stops over a 17 km stretch that runs from outlying areas to the city core.  In addition to addressing safety concerns, Gugulethu and other Bike Bus routes provide a viable economic alternative for residents living on the outer fringes of the city, who historically have spent up to 40 percent of their monthly income on transit. 

Aimee Gauthier is all too familiar with the car-dominated streets of cities in the developing world, where “there’s often no space for pedestrians or cyclists and even when there is, the quality of infrastructure isn’t great. Often there are obstructions, open drains, and a lack of pavement… so it’s less safe to walk on the roads… especially for people with strollers or those with mobility issues.”

Not unlike Wilkins, Gauthier… through her work as Chief Knowledge Officer of the international nonprofit organization ITDP (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy) is constantly reminded of the close correlation between how streets are currently being used and the social barriers that plague many cities. 

“There are a lot of inequities in terms of access and who feels safe in public space. In terms of who is deemed worthy and has a right to space,” Gauthier observed. What we need instead she said, “are cities that reflect a dignity and value for all… especially the most marginalized.”

At the same time COVID-19 has amplified the social inequities that exist, Gauthier remarked that the world’s response over the past six months has demonstrated “we are capable of doing extraordinary things… things we wouldn’t have dreamt of before, such as rethinking the roles of our streets as public space and the need for more room for walking and cycling.”

For instance in Mexico City, previously unthinkable protected bike lanes have sprung up throughout the city. Consequently, the number of women cyclists has almost doubled. 

In India, where cycling has historically lagged other countries, the Cycle4Change initiative is designed to bolster city efforts to encourage more residents to cycle as a means of transportation. Already over 100 cities and 600 social groups have jumped on board, in support of efforts that include creating pop-up bike lanes, establishing traffic calming areas, and promoting cycle sharing programs.   

Arguably one of the most inspiring initiatives Gauthier spoke about in an interview after the session, is the one in Jakarta, a city plagued by some of the world’s worst traffic congestion. As a result of COVID-19 and the reluctance by many to use public transit over safety concerns, citizens banded together to create temporary bike lanes – despite push back not only from car drivers but the local police. 

Some motorists went so far as to ignore the cones that had been set up for the safety of the cyclists, in response to which members of the local Bike to Work initiative staged outings where they essentially acted as a human chain… standing in between the bollards and cones as a way to encourage and support bikers to come out while literally discouraging motorists from crossing the line. 

Remarkably now, due to the overwhelming popularity of these bike lanes, the city has agreed to make them permanent, with the goal of continuing to expand this network. 

The Jakarta story is a fitting example of what Wilkins of Open Streets elegantly described as “social infrastructure,” linked to the people-driven goal of promoting a just and climate-conscious future.

The Daring Cities conference wraps up on Wednesday, October 28 with their Moving Forward session, which focuses on how cities, towns, and regions can better cope with climate change moving forward. The line-up for this complimentary session (just register on the link provided) includes Bonn Mayor Ashok Sridharan, Montreal Mayor Valerie Plant and Ibrahim Thiaw, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. 

Mark Wessel


Mark Wessel

Mark Wessel is an urban journalist, consultant and public speaker who profiles unique city initiatives tied to sustainability, resiliency and quality of living. In addition to Shareable, his work has appeared