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Open streets for citizens and cyclists

Taking back the streets is an integral part of building healthier, happier, safer communities and the WWF Nedbank Green Trust funded Open Streets project is leading this work in the Mother City.

‘We can walk on the streets!’ said a small girl with amazement on Sunday, 27 January 2019, year when people from every part of Cape Town filled Bree Street during Open Streets City Centre. The street was turned into a vehicle-free zone for a day of fun, togetherness, music, dancing, cycling, skateboarding and socialising. A month later, on 24 February, the people of Cape Town did the same during Open Streets Langa and on 31 March will come out again during Open Streets Mitchell’s Plain.
 
‘The small girl’s comment shows that a seed has been planted and her generation will hopefully have a very different relationship with urban spaces and streets,’ says Marcela Guerrero Casas, who convened a group of Cape Town residents and founded Open Streets Cape Town (OSCT) in 2013.
 
Over the past six years 19 Open Streets events have taken place across the city. OSCT’s main partners are the City of Cape Town, the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI). The WWF Nedbank Green Trust, funded by the Nedbank Green Affinity, has funded OSCT since 2016.
 
‘I believe that streets can bring people together. In a city like Cape Town, with its history of division and segregation, an Open Streets programme can profoundly change how we relate to each other and help people to feel comfortable in every part of the city,’ says Guerrero Casas. In February she handed the reins to Rebecca Campbell, who has been part of the OSCT team since 2014.
 
Guerrero Casa has returned to Colombia where the Open Streets concept started in 1974, in the capital city of Bogotá. It is now a global movement, with Open Streets programmes hosted in over 400 cities around the world under different names.
 
In Colombia the Open Streets programme is called Ciclovía, which means ‘cycleway’. It was started by a group of cyclists and it is all about creating car-free routes for people to move freely and safely. It developed into a movement where people freely come together to socialise and enjoy the streets. Today Ciclovía is no longer an event but an institution in Colombia, where on Sundays and public holidays over 120 km of Bogotá is turned into open streets, while smaller cities open 50 km to 70 km of streets.
 
Open Streets Cape Town is young by comparison, yet it is already a much-anticipated event in the city. In addition to having fun on the day, people engage in Talking Streets discussions about how to bridge the city’s social and spacial divides, how to decrease the city’s high carbon footprint from motorised transport, and how to transform the streets into welcoming, safe spaces for citizens – a place where people can walk and cycle safely in the streets.
 
‘Ciclovía in Colombia and Open Streets in Cape Town are incredibly practical and effective platforms for strengthening the social fabric and helping civil society and the public and private sectors work together to create more sustainable, inclusive and resilient urban environments,’ says Campbell. ‘There is real power in the street to connect people and we’re so grateful to all the partners and collaborators who’ve joined us to create these healing spaces of play, imagination and diversity.’
 
Campbell continues: ‘In addition to Open Streets days, we’re inviting everyone to make 2019 the year of cycling to work (or wherever you travel to daily) in order to build on the #Bike2Work bike bus campaign we ran last year.’ A bike bus is a group of cyclists riding together along a set route. This year OSCT turned its attention from organising the bike buses to supporting the independent champions who have emerged to lead various bike bus routes. ‘We challenge people to travel to work in a bike bus on at least one Friday a month. Cycling in a group makes the commute safer and more pleasurable,’ says Campbell.
 
‘I personally started cycling again as an adult when I joined Open Streets, and I cycle to work and to meetings. On the weekends I like to explore the city by bicycle and I am currently training for my first Cape Town Cycle Tour. Riding a bicycle has opened up a whole new world of opportunities and freedom for me: empowerment as a woman, better physical and mental health, new friends and social circles, and the simple joy of cycling.
 
‘We believe the way forward for increased commuter cycling in Cape Town is through building bicycling communities, collaborating with our existing partners (Pedal Power Association, Bicycling Empowerment Network, Bicycle South and TSiBA Education, which are all doing amazing work in this sphere) and enlisting new partners in the private sector, which has great influence over employee mobility patterns.’
 
Campbell adds that educational institutions are great spaces for cycling advocacy work and to reach young people who are open to trying new things and need alternatives to poor public transport options. ‘The TSiBA Cycling Club, for example, brings a really positive and nurturing energy to cycling in Cape Town,’ says Campbell.
 
OSCT has participated in a number of engagements on what mobility means to the individual across the socioeconomic spectrum. It is part of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Mobility and Guerrero Casas presented OSCT’s work at the 2018 conference in Dubai.
 
In May 2018 OSCT won the TUMI challenge. TUMI is the leading global implementation initiative on urban mobility. With the prize money from the German development agency GIZ, OSCT was able to organise additional Open Streets days and bring together 19 participants from 11 African cities for the first Open Streets Exchange for African Cities, a week-long event in Cape Town in October 2018. In January 2019 participants from Kampala organised a Car Free Day, and there have since been multiple Open Streets days in Addis Ababa, with plans in the pipeline for more in other African cities.
 
It takes time for the concept to take hold in any city as there is always a degree of risk aversion from city managers. For example, they’re often concerned about emergency vehicles being able to go through, when in fact they can get through more easily as there is no traffic. Fortunately, Open Streets Cape Town has won the hearts and minds of the City of Cape Town and Campbell says the response is much more positive after 19 Open Streets Days without a single serious incident.
 
‘We are excited about the spread of Open Streets in South Africa and have enjoyed sharing our experience and lessons learned with partners in Johannesburg, who are developing their own plans,’ adds Campbell. What has proved essential to the programme is that while government support is crucial, it must be rooted in civil society, with significant public engagement to ensure community ownership. It is about who uses the space; it is not about who is in power.’

End.
For a few hours during Open Streets, Cape Town's urban byways are transformed into a utopia for people on foot.

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