It's not too late to prevent a driving apocalypse

A cyclist is pictured on an expanded cycling track in a street in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on on April 14, 2020, amid the new coronavirus pandemic. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)

It is increasingly clear that there will be no wholesale lifting of the stay-at-home orders that have been imposed in so many countries around the world. Some restrictions will be progressively loosened within a matter of weeks, but life will not go back to normal for many months yet.  

Until the threat of the coronavirus dissipates, urban commuters in hard-hit places are likely to remain mistrustful of public transport. Buses and subways are poorly ventilated confined spaces. Every handrail and seat, touched by innumerable passengers on any given day, is a potential vector of infection.

Whenever restrictions are eventually loosened, many travellers who would normally use mass transit may flock to individual modes of transportation, which do not require brushing shoulders with strangers. In dense metro areas that have long neglected cyclists and pedestrians, this will mean the car.

Recent polling by AutoTrader, a car marketplace, found that half of public transport users in the UK would be less likely to use public transport after lockdown restrictions are lifted. Two thirds of those in city centres, typically the most reliant on public transport, agreed that having a vehicle would become more important in the future.

Yet the negative externalities associated with driving, from noxious emissions to gridlocked streets, have not disappeared. Even though changes to work patterns may result in fewer commutes as employees work more days from home, the weeks following the easing of restrictions could see an explosion in the share of journeys made by car in areas where a significant proportion of trips were previously made by public transport.

“As lockdown loosens, car travel will become more appealing than it was before the pandemic, potentially exacerbating inequality and climate change,” says Giulio Ferrini, the head of built environment at Sustrans London, a charity promoting sustainable modes of travel.

But there is still time to prevent a spike in car use and emissions. If cities and countries rapidly formulate coherent policies aimed at supporting the other individual modes of transportation – walking and cycling, known collectively as “active travel” – they can help ensure that mass transit riders don’t suddenly become drivers.

Such policies could involve widening pavements to allow pedestrians to pass each other at safe distances, setting up pop-up segregated cycle lanes on main roads, and plonking planters in the middle of residential roads to curb cut-through traffic. Governments and city authorities “should take advantage of the massively reduced traffic volumes under lockdown to proactively reallocate space away from cars now,” says Joe Wills, a researcher at the Centre for London, a think-tank.

“Encouraging people to make greater use of cycling and walking for local journeys will bring wider benefits, including holding down the levels of air pollution post-pandemic,” says Darren Shirley, the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport in the UK.

In this respect, Britain lags far behind other places. Cities around the world, from Bogotá to Berlin, are already putting up hundreds of kilometres of temporary cycle lanes to permit people to get around safely and sustainably. France is planning to build so-called “coronalanes” linking Paris and its suburbs. Sustainable transport activists hope that once installed, some of the changes to streets will prove so popular that they will become permanent, even after the health crisis abates.

Comparable efforts from the UK on installing temporary active travel infrastructure, which will need come within weeks to avoid the worst of a spike in car use, have been curiously lacking. The most visible change the Department for Transport has made is to slightly relax the rules for local authorities to close roads. There are few hints of a national strategy for emergency infrastructure, nor signals from ministers that local authorities who choose to make roads more amenable to cyclists and pedestrians will have the support of national government.                                                      

This is all the more puzzling because the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has a better record of promoting cycling than any other British politician of comparable stature. Together with his cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan, Johnson’s tenure as mayor of London saw the construction of several segregated cycle lanes into central London, including the east-west superhighway, widely considered one of the best in the UK. Gilligan was drafted into Number 10 when Johnson became prime minister last year.

Active travel is doubtless not at the top of the UK government’s current list of priorities. Yet as debate moves from tackling the current public health crisis to managing the new normal when restrictions begin to be eased, the personal inclinations of the blonde biker in Number 10 and those close to him could prove pivotal.

“Andrew Gilligan gets cycling,” says Ruth Cadbury, the Labour MP who serves as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group.

In a statement, Jim McMahon, the shadow minister for transport in the UK, called temporary cycle lanes “a promising idea” and suggested that national government should back local authorities that choose to install them. Chris Heaton-Harris, the junior minister for transport responsible for cycling, did not respond to a request for comment.

Jon Burke, the cabinet member for transport in the London borough of Hackney, told me that adapting mobility to the coronavirus age will require city authorities rethinking how they deliver schemes to promote walking and cycling. Interventions installed in days will not be up to the standard of plans that have been pored over for months by planners. “Messy urbanism is what is going to be required. These radical interventions will not be as shiny as they might have otherwise have been,” he says.

Burke, who prides himself on having kept a close eye on Johnson during an eight-year stint as an advisor in the London Assembly, is cautiously optimistic about the potential for the coronavirus crisis to prove a turning point in the UK’s approach to mobility. “Boris Johnson is mindful of his place in history. If he feels that this is an area in which he can create a historic legacy for himself – and given that he is a cyclist himself – the government may be minded to take the bold steps for active travel that this crisis demands.”

Ido Vock is a freelance journalist currently based in Tbilisi, Georgia. 


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.