No, Cambridge should not be trying to innovate in public transport. Sometimes, boring is better

One of the prettier Cambridge colleges. Image: Getty.

Cambridge likes to style itself as a place where ideas are formed. “Cambridge ideas change the world,” according to the university.

And the city is currently having a lot of ideas about how to solve its traffic problems. The region’s metro mayor, James Palmer, is on record as supporting the idea of an underground rapid transit system for the city. Local campaign groups, business lobbyists and professors alike have weighed in with their ideas, and sketched out exciting maps of future transport systems.

But while the city supports copious innovation in electronics and biotech, it absolutely should not be trying to innovate in public transport.


Here’s why: Cambridge is really small for a city. The 2011 census put its population at 123,000, but the city is growing, so it’s perhaps 130,000 now. The current record holder for “smallest city with a metro system” is Lausanne, Switzerland – population: 146,000, but in an urban area of 400,000 – which has a light rail line and an underground metro line. The latter is less than four miles long, and cost around half a billion pounds to build when it opened in 2008. It’s also on a really steep hill: the metro allows people to easily travel between the upper and lower parts of the city. This is definitely not a problem that Cambridge has.

So, what could we do for Cambridge? Lots of people argue for trams. They’re fast, quiet, give a smoother ride than a bus, and the fixed infrastructure means that they raise property prices along their route, which can help with financing them.

For such a system to work properly, however, you’ve got to give it a dedicated route – or the trams will get just as stuck in traffic as the buses already are. That means closing a lot of roads in the city to cars, in order to make space for public transport.

Given we can’t find enough street space to give priority for buses on the roads into the city, it’ll be just as difficult for trams. Even worse: tram tracks are really not kind to cyclists. In a city where 29 per cent of the population cycles to or from work, disrupting cycling is going to be really counterproductive.

The “Isaac Newton Line” – a massive proposed light rail system with four underground stations in the city, with options to be extended all over the region (click to expand). If only money grew on trees. Image: CambridgeConnect.

“But wait,” say various armchair engineers, “we could have a tunnel!”

That’s true. We could have tunnels for trams in the city centre, and run them on the surface further out.

Now you’ve got a tram system with underground stations, so that’s more expensive to build, and also more expensive to operate (because underground stations are likely to need to be staffed for safety).  You’ve also got to work out where to put the portals.

Another Cambridge – the one in Massachusetts – has a tunnel for its trolleybuses, to allow passengers to interchange easily with the underground metro at Harvard Square. The ramps to the tunnel – which is only just below the road surface – are 100m long. If you wanted a tunnel under Cambridge, UK, you’d end up doing some serious demolition to make enough space.

 

The Harvard bus tunnel in Cambridge, MA: the northern approach ramp runs through a park, and the southern one is underneath the One Brattle Square shopping complex. Both require a strip about 100m long. Image: Open Street Map.

“Can’t we have a more innovative solution?” Well, step forward the Affordable Very Rapid Transit, or AVRT. This is the brainchild of John Miles, a professor of civil engineering.

He proposes a wheel-shaped network of tunnels, with a single central underground station, and connections to a series of sites around the periphery.

AVRT: here’s a sexy computer rendering of a non-existent eight-wheeled autonomous bus. Image: Connecting Cambridgeshire.

To save money, the tunnels will be single-track, with driverless vehicles shuttling back and forth between stations at each end. Passengers will be required to change at every station – because this will save on the cost of the signalling.

A map of the AVRT proposal: click to expand. Each of the blue lines is a tunnel served by vehicles shuttling back and forth, with no through connections. That central underground station is going to be an overcrowding nightmare as everyone tries to change between four different routes all at once. Image: Smart Cambridge.

Miles’ reports (vol. 1  and vol. 2 ) read a lot like he’s trying to reinvent the wheel from first principles. Many aspects of his design resemble the now-30-year-old Lille Metro, which isn’t even referenced.

There’s a very good reason why Cambridge should not spend any further public money on such schemes. There’s one thing guaranteed to be more risky and expensive than a new rapid transit system – and that’s a new rapid transit system based on entirely novel and untested technology.

Cambridge is simply too small to take the risk. It’s already been burned by the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway, another grand experiment that ended up taking longer, costing more,  and looking like it’s going to be more expensive to maintain than previously thought.

So what should the city do? For a fraction of the cost of rapid transit, Cambridge could:

  • Build more segregated cycle lanes and cycle routes;
  • Use the mayor’s powers to take control of the local bus franchise, and give it sensible unified ticketing;
  • Extend frequent bus routes out to the surrounding villages, and reduce their dependence on park and ride and city centre parking;
  • Fund electric or hybrid buses to reduce noise and air pollution in the city;
  • Fund improvements to the rural heavy rail lines, giving a higher frequency service to nearby towns like Newmarket.

It’s not as exciting – but it’s much lower risk and much higher reward. Cambridge may be the best place to innovate for many industries, but public transport definitely should not be one of them.

Mike Prior-Jones is a Cambridge-based engineer.

Why not read these related articles? Are trams really better than buses? What is bus rapid transit – and why doesn’t every city want one

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.