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Monday Jun 27, 2016

History of Cape Town's unfinished freeways

The tantalising vision of their colonial backwater transformed into a marvel of metropolitan symmetry greeted readers of the Cape Argus in September 1912.

A view of the gap in the foreshore freeway.

The late Edwardian scheme showed a veritable Versailles by the sea, with flag-stoned plazas and elegant facades coming down to the water's edge of Table Bay.

The newspaper itself spiritedly suggested moving the railway station behind the Castle so that "all the rails, tin sheds and other buildings which cumber the foreshore and what could easily be the finest sea front in the world, (could) be swept away".

The Atlantic would lap not the sandy beach of a provincial outpost, but the dressed stone of grand civic monumentalism.

None of it came to pass, of course.

In not many years it was found the harbour was too small if the Union was to be a player in world trade. And, though not obvious in 1912, the motor car had arrived, a technology a later cartoonist fancied, not inaptly, as the "great dictator" in ordering the shape, spending and life of 20th century cities.

On top of that, was the inescapable girding of unpalatable politics.

What happened on the Foreshore - after 194ha had been reclaimed from Table Bay from the mid-1930s - reflects these dynamics in not always obvious ways.

The abandoned portions of the unfinished freeway system - choice locations, by default, for action-film stunt scenes and gritty urban fashion shoots - have commonly been known as Solly's Folly, after the incumbent city engineer, Solly Morris, when Cape Town canned the project in the mid-1970s for lack of money. But there is more to it.

Earlier this week, city transport specialist Lisa Kane provided a fuller account of the fate of the freeway plan articulated in 1963 after more than a decade of "intense wrangling" - by an unlikely threesome: a Detroit traffic engineer, a Bishops-educated British professor of planning and a local engineer.

The scheme, "typical of thinking at the time", sought to provide quicker suburban access to the city centre and national arteries. But its footprint would be staggeringly destructive (the Eastern Boulevard ploughed through District Six housing in 1963/64) and, like similar inner-city freeway projects in the US, began to stimulate civil rights resistance.

"The huge arches of the foreshore freeways were suddenly labelled by the local press as a 'concrete dragon'."

A Cape Argus cartoon from 1966.

South African road engineers returning from trips to the US "were shocked by how dramatically the mood in the US had shifted against the very urban freeway construction South Africa was in the midst of ".

One ( in 1968) "argued strongly that the government should no longer subsidise urban freeway building", and, through the 1970s, such schemes "were either quietly dropped or downgraded".

In Cape Town, by the mid1970s, "attention had shifted away from the CBD to the then new Mitchells Plain, which required huge investment to fulfil the apartheid plan".

So, "officially", the Foreshore freeway was stopped because the money ran out, but, Kane wrote, the unfinished forms are really "a physical manifestation of the struggle for human rights in the making of cities... a memorial to painful struggles both at home and elsewhere".

If those "painful struggles" were not appreciated at the time, it is telling that an enduring line of thinking - that cities must provide more roadway to match increasing numbers of cars - has a long and influential history, too.

World War ll had six bitter months still to run when then city engineer WS Lunn was asked by The Argus to look ahead 25 years and tell readers what he "saw" in 1960. The Foreshore was, naturally, a preoccupation.

In the article published on November 24, 1944, Lunn declared boldly: "The topic of the day in 1960 may still be traffic congestion unless we plan far-sightedly now", and that "(t)he whole future of Cape Town as a place of beauty, amenities and convenience depends upon the proper planning of the foreshore."

Lunn went on: "I shudder to think how our present streets system could cope with (the anticipated increase in cars). Unless we plan now... our streets will become... choked. The only alternative then will be large-scale surgery to cut new traffic arteries and the cost will be stupendous."

Fast forward a decade and a half, and it is Solly Morris himself who, in an Argus article of late August 1959 - this time looking forward to the distant modernity of 1980 - asserts all the more confidently the freeway formula and the idea that building roads was "appropriate" to ensure congestion did not "strangle" the city.

By 1980, he foresaw "at least two expressways linking Table Bay with False Bay; and, if the traffic warrants it, a tunnel through the mountain by the turn of this century. The Ring Road, too, will have been completed - unless they're still talking about it! Even before 1970, the Black River Road, Liesbeek Way and Boulevard East will be realities."

Neither the Ring Road, nor a tunnel through the mountain, was built, but most of the rest was - and with it came abiding congestion, of which today's R750- million commitment over five years to relieve clogged routes is a pricey token.

For Kane, the most bewildering lesson of Foreshore transport planning history is the stubborn reluctance to learn from it.

At the heart of it is the mantra of progressive urbanists summed up in the phrase: "Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity."

This, it appears, is a faithful corruption of an idea expressed by urban planner Lewis Mumford in The New Yorker back in 1955: "Like the tailor's remedy for obesity - letting out the seams of the trousers and loosening the belt - this does nothing to curb the greedy appetites that have caused the fat to accumulate."

Adding more roads, Kane writes, "simply feeds a culture of more car use".

If roads generated more traffic, they could never solve congestion.

"We don't have to look further than Hospital Bend to see how quickly gridlock has resumed after the supposed relief of the additional lanes built at great expense to the taxpayer."

The challenge was to rethink "travel behaviour", not try to match - and only feed - traffic demand.

"We live in an era where almost everything points away from even more urban road building: climate change, technology developments, bus rapid transit schemes, pedestrianisation, the high incidence of road-related deaths and urban renewal."

Stimulating public transport was an obvious option, but ... "investing in roads reduces the viability of public transport."

Against this, the Foreshore lesson was pressing, Kane believed. Heeding it in rethinking the unfinished freeways was vital.

Bridge proposal 'needs a clear brief '

Tuesday's announcement on the unfinished Foreshore freeway was more than usually significant for transport specialist Lisa Kane.

The fact is, Kane is probably more familiar with the genesis of the Foreshore freeway system than anyone alive today. It was the subject of her PhD - "Values and valuing in urban road engineering: the case of the 'unfinished' Foreshore Freeway, Cape Town" - a few years ago, and it remains an abiding interest.

It is no surprise then that she paid close attention to the various public statements this week by Mayor Patricia de Lille and the city's transport chief Brett Herron.

She described her initial response as "quietly optimistic".

"This is more about land-use development," she wrote approvingly, "about bringing in the creative private sector, about open and transparent public participation. It's balanced. It's exciting. It's different to what has gone before."

Later, she wasn't so sure. Listening to De Lille on the John Maytham Show later in the day, Kane was alarmed that the mayor "is stridently insisting that the freeways will be completed by this scheme. I check the press statement again: '...part of the conditions for the development will be that it include the funds to complete the unfinished bridges, alleviate congestion and provide affordable housing'."

She found this proposition "conflicting", cautioning that "if this process is going to have half a chance of success it needs a clear and visionary brief from the city" which "does not prejudge the creative process (but) sketches out a vision, and not a solution".

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)


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