No, the solution to Britain’s cycling problems isn’t glowing tubes in the sky

An indeterminate London bridge. Image: Ribble Cycles.

Of all the things that annoy me about the modern media industry – and goodness me there’s a lot to choose from – the one I find most profoundly irritating is the increasingly entrenched belief that advertising should be free; that time-pressed content monkeys like yours truly can be tricked into offering publicity for any old nonsense, providing that the pictures are pretty enough.

Companies that would blanche at the idea of handing over a few hundred quid for an advert will quite happily spend god knows what on graphic design to accompany spurious pieces of “research”, which people like me will write about on the grounds that pics mean clicks. It doesn’t matter if the ideas proposed are a bit ridiculous; indeed, the viral internet being what it is, there’s a case to be made that the more ridiculous the better. It’s the corporate communications equivalent of jumping up and down and screaming, “Look at me, I’m wearing a tea cosy on my head”.

Which brings me to this nonsense by bike manufacturer Ribble Cycles, which imagines that the future of cycling in British cities is to place some mysteriously glowing tubes in the sky above existing highways.

Image: Ribble Cycles.

It’s called “Cycle cities”, either because they spent so much a photoshop subscription that they couldn’t afford branding consultants, or possibly because of SEO.

Anyway:

If governments and local councils worked together to plan a safer, cycle-first infrastructure in two of the UK’s largest cities, what would it look like? In creating our own Future Cities, the team here at Ribble collaborated with its very own expert panel in order to find out.

Did you, though? Did you really? Because I suspect that what it would look like would actually be quite boring and predictable: some segregated cycle lanes, a few traffic calming measures, and a big row with the local driving lobby, generally. What I suspect it wouldn’t look like is this:

Image: Ribble Cycles.

For those who are familiar with this roundabout in Waterloo, this picture raises several questions. One is what happens just to the left of the picture, where the raised cycle path presumably continues onto Waterloo Bridge. I suppose it’s possible that structure could happily withstand having a great big raised cycle lane on top of it, but I’m not entirely convinced anyone on Ribble’s Expert panel has checked this.

And one of the things that makes me think as much is that the picture which shows the path continuing along Waterloo Bridge in fact shows it continuing along Westminster Bridge:

Note the caption (click to expand). Image: Ribble Cycles.

The presence of the Palace of Westminster is a bit of a clue there lads. (To be fair, someone seems to have spotted this and corrected this in the press pack, but it’s still mis-labelled on the main page.)

The other question is what happens immediately to the right of this picture where the cycle lane is about to run slap bang into the middle of this bridge:

Image: Google.

That panel of experts is oddly silent on whether its plan involves ripping up that bridge, and thus severing the main train line into Charing Cross. But since another of the artist’s impressions shows that they’ve literally ripped the roof off Waterloo station to get the cycleway through it, I’m starting to suspect they haven’t really thought this through:

Image: Ribble Cycles.

Perhaps it seems like I’m being unnecessarily grumpy here. The inspiration for the raised cycle-paths, after all, is a real project: the Hovenring in Eindhoven, a raised cycle route which separates bikes from road traffic.

Image: Federation of European Cyclists.

That, though, is a bigger roundabout than the one at Waterloo, and has rather fewer technical challenges which make the whole idea implausible. More to the point, Ribble Cycles’ plan involves extending this overhead cycle paths in all sorts of silly directions that have nothing to do with avoiding busy roads at all. In Manchester, for example, they’d ruin a perfectly good park:

Image: Ribble Cycles.

Given the area’s dim, grey aesthetic, it’s hardly surprising that cyclists, tourists and locals alike have struggled to fall in love with Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens in the past.

Yes, and filling a place with the sort of concrete struts required to support large, dingy overhead walkways that cast the ground beneath into shadow has always done wonders to brighten things up.

Except wait:

Transforming the dimly lit walkways that currently run through the heart of Piccadilly Gardens, we see an area stitched together by a series of elevated, two-way cycle lanes and illuminated paths. Each path is made using modern, eco-friendly materials, including solar panels – which in turn power the lights that give this area its iconic, futuristic feel.

See? Don’t be so judgemental. They’re not dingy overhead walkways, they’re solar powered and illuminated dingy overhead walkways.

Image: Ribble Cycles.

I’m going to stop analysing this here, because I’m in definite danger of putting more thought into this than Ribble’s “expert panel” ever bothered with.

This isn’t the first time someone’s tried to pull this nonsense, and it won’t be the last. Remember Sky Cycle, Norman Foster’s proposal for 220km of cycle paths above London’s railways? In 2014, that claimed to be a real project with official backing, but never seems to have made it as far as a feasibility study, which rather makes one wonder.

Genuine question – why has it snowed under the cycle path, but nowhere else? Image: Foster & Partners.

Then there was Arup’s floating cycle path, which one commentator* described as “the most ludicrous London transport project yet”.

Sure. Image: Arup.

I don’t want to be too down on the idea of thinking big or being radical: when underground railways were first proposed, Punch magazine famously ripped into the idea of running trains through basements. Perhaps some of these schemes are more plausible than I’m giving them credit for.

Perhaps. But what all of them have in common is a press pack, filled with pretty, shareable images, and a suspicious lack of actual engineering research. They’re just out for the free press coverage, aren’t they?

And the media being what it is, we fall for it every single time.

Well. Alright then. I like traffic, so I will write about this stuff, too.

But I’m not going to be nice about it, that’s all I’m saying.

(*Me.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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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.