Three new trends that could avert city gridlock

Gridlock in Paris, 2007. Image: Getty.

From London to Delhi, e-hailing companies like Uber and journey-planning apps like CityMapper are fast transforming the way people move around cities.

When you’re rushing to work and your home is miles from a train station, the bus is not due for 30 minutes and the city bike-hire scheme hasn’t reached your part of town yet, you are increasingly likely to reach for your smartphone to find the closest car-club vehicle, or to hail a taxi.

But what if we all did that to travel around our cities? Imagine the congestion and air pollution as people flock to cars.

So how do we fill the gaps in the public transport system without grinding our neighbourhoods to a standstill? How can our kids get to school without also getting asthma? Even if everyone uses electric driverless vehicles, what would that do for the sheer number of cars in our cities? With the greatest urban migration in history expected over the next 20 years, increasing the number of people living in cities from 3.5bn to 5bn, the stakes are high.

We were among those who produced the first global study to track this new wave of innovations in transport technologies, and our conclusions are bold. There are three major opportunities for city governments to use new technologies to take the battle out of your trip across town.

Firstly, trip-planning and ticketing smart-phone apps can make it easier for passengers to use real-time information to plan and pay for their journeys – seamlessly hopping from tube to bus to e-taxi, to car-sharing, cycle-hire or walking. Better information is proving the driving force behind changes in the choices we are making. In Los Angeles for example, the Go-LA app not only offers all the many options for getting from A to B, it lets users compare the time, cost, health benefits (calories burned) and climate emissions involved.

Secondly, fleets of on-demand electric minibuses could replace underused traditional bus routes in less densely populated areas on the edge of cities. Transport authorities are under pressure to meet demand while controlling operating costs. Buses, tubes and trams are often the most efficient and clean mode of urban transport, but only if a lot of the seats are occupied.


Modelling of four Greater London bus routes found that, even with the additional cost of purchasing electric minibuses and routing software, the scheme could make a profit in 4 years and cut climate emissions and nitrogen pollution by up to 99 per cent.

Thirdly, e-hailing can help passengers cover the first and last mile of their trips to and from public transport stations. Evidence from the USA shows use of public transport drops by up to 90 per cent when passengers need to walk more than half a mile to the nearest transport stop. Cities that have subsidised e-hailed shared electric taxis to and from transit hubs have improved residents’ access to public transport, boosted ridership and fare revenues, and reduced the number of lengthy journeys people take using private cars into the centre of cities. Subsidies can be targeted at those most in need.

The research by the Coalition for Urban Transitions argues that better data could enable city governments to use on-demand electric minibuses and e-hailed taxis to fill the gaps in mass transit systems. If managed well, these new technologies can help to channel people towards mass public transport hubs, cycle schemes and walking options. Ultimately, the aim is to move people away from private cars by improving the efficiency and experience of other transport options.

There is one take-home message:  both the public and private sectors need to understand the potential and risks of these rapidly emerging technologies, and plan for them. Banning e-hailing companies or autonomous cars from city streets, as many have done, ultimately won’t fix transport systems. City halls and national governments need to prepare regulation that ensures transport systems, as they evolve, are safe, convenient, fair, affordable and sustainable. And they need to consider whether and how public-private collaborations could deliver better services for urban residents.

If cities can do this, innovations in mobiIty services could help liberate our cities from gridlock and air pollution – rather than compound the problem.

Louise Hutchins is an advisor to the Coalition for Urban Transitions, former special advisor to the Ecuadorian government and led Greenpeace UK’s energy campaigns. Julia Thayne is the Director of Urban Development for the Siemens’ Center for Cities in the Americas and co-author of the report. 

 
 
 
 

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.