Could Covid-19 change how cities view their streets?

Joburg residents – and those in other urban centres in South Africa – have been experiencing their streets in a novel and gratifying way during the Covid-19 lockdown. Could it become a way of life?

Here are some scenes that were familiar in Johannesburg during level four of the government’s Covid-19 lockdown, when exercise was permitted only in the morning: on streets that are normally congested with vehicle traffic could be seen people jogging, walking, riding bicycles, pushing babies in prams and engaging in other forms of exercise. 

Some would use the sidewalks, whereas others would be in the streets. Only occasionally a vehicle would appear, presumably carrying passengers travelling to work in sectors permitted to remain open. More often than not, a fluid dance of give and take would take place. In this dance, by way of example, joggers would move to one side of the road, allowing the slow-moving vehicle to pass and then return to the original position. 

The experience of inhabiting and using streets in this way was a novelty, a novel but cherished experience that offered a momentary return to a key glue of life: social interaction, albeit of the physically distanced variety. And while such shared use of streets was a major break in recent memory, in the longer historical trajectory of life in large-scale urban centres, it represented a return to what once was. 

Related article:

As in many countries worldwide, when South Africa first started to urbanise, streets were spaces for recreation, commerce and play, as they were also spaces for mobility. Early pictorial evidence shows allocated uses of streets such as centres for tramlines, or sidewalks as spaces for walking. 

In practice, however, street use was fluid. Even when there were pavements, it was common and acceptable to walk anywhere and in any direction on the streets. This is not to suggest that streets were devoid of conflict. Indeed, there were many conflicts, including racialised battles for space in which black people were banned from pavements. Accidents also happened. Yet all these struggles took place on more “open” streets than we know today.

If the more open use of streets that we experienced during parts of level four of the lockdown is not new, how then did we get to a situation in which it appears so? Was it an inevitable process such as one where, in the interests of safety, pedestrians had to give way to fast-moving automobiles? 

Power struggles on the streets

Like elsewhere around the world, the historical evidence shows that the transformation was a deeply political process. It involved profound and protracted power struggles between different groups. The outcome was not certain. Nevertheless, streets did become what they are now through various key strategic moves by those in favour of a future of automobility. Here are a few illustrations of these levers of change.

An important lever took place in the arena of public relations, in which the media was crucial. If the future was to be a motor-oriented streetscape, then proponents were agile and persistent in characterising the then customary practices as abhorrent and backward. The normal conduct of walking anywhere on streets became besmirched and was termed “jaywalking”. 

Related article:

Here, following its American origins, a jaywalker was an unsophisticated rural migrant who, in their awe of the city, would stand in the middle of the road, mouth agape at the wonders of the urban environment. As they did so, they were unaware that they were blocking vehicle traffic. In the context of colonialism and then apartheid, the walking figure increasingly became a black person while, more often than not, behind the wheel was a “white” figure. 

The broader social struggles for power and control then became manifest on streets. The attacks against the “older” practices did not go unchallenged. Some newspapers had dedicated columns in which the growing road safety problem was depicted to be because of the motor car. Cartoons were drawn, as were hurled insults against car drivers. 

It was against this background of public scepticism about motor cars that lobby groups formed and eventually a national motoring association came into being in 1922. Even though there is some evidence of black people as pedestrians “fighting” back against a then largely white motoring public, harsh glares and even rocks were no match in a militarised context.

Islands of safety for pedestrians

As streets were to be reimagined, so they also had to be redesigned into the new future. With growing motorisation, especially in the 1930s, road engineers in Johannesburg introduced an innovation in streets: wide traffic islands. The road engineer who introduced them was clear that their purpose was to safeguard a space where tram tracks could be placed progressively. But they were also there for pedestrian protection. 

He said that instead of looking twice to cross the road, the pedestrian would only look once, take a break in safety on the island, then proceed to the other side after satisfying themself that the road was clear. For many years, motoring interests undertook a sustained campaign against the islands. The municipal council, however, refused to accede to their demands, only giving way in 1947. From then onward, the size of the islands was steadily and systematically reduced. 

Related article:

If road designs, imaginations and everyday practices had to give way to a car-oriented future, so did the law. The earliest regulations subordinated the rights of car drivers to those of other road users. One law required that, should a car driver be requested to stop by a person on a horse or mule, they had to do so immediately. While car drivers would have been frustrated by encountering two people riding bicycles side by side, they would have had no legal instrument to stop the practice. 

In 1928, an advisory group to the municipality on traffic matters refused to accept a request by a motoring group that it ban the practice. In refusing, the group thundered that it was cars that were more dangerous. The lobby groups did not give up. Over time, those cycling became predominantly the working class – black people. The fight to banish side-by-side cycling also took on racialised hues, as is well illustrated by protracted struggles on Louis Botha Avenue. The anti-cycling lobbies’ efforts did eventually prevail in 1937. The law is still in national regulations.

Through these and other mechanisms, the slower and mixed uses of streets that Joburgers briefly enjoyed under level four of the lockdown disappeared. They came to be seen as abnormal, were enshrined in law and materialised in engineering practices. By the turn to democracy in 1994, that streets were mainly corridors for the movement of motor vehicles, on which all others were expected to subordinate themselves to this purpose, would be all that those born and socialised in Johannesburg would come to know. 

Sites for connection

Can streets return to their early promise and potential as spaces used for more than simply the mobility of vehicles? In their brief configuration as slower, mixed-used spaces during level four, urban streets in Johannesburg and other large urban centres in South Africa became sites for connection with others. 

One could also “read” a sense of freedom in the actions of children as they played on open streets. Parents appeared relaxed, no doubt not only because of the luxury of being released from isolation but also because they did not have to engage in the mandatory vigilance of monitoring the road environment for their offspring. 

If streets can be vital sites for the enactment and actualisation of humanity, the path to this vision merely requires embracing it and acting to realise it. Already there are some indicative signs of this change worldwide, and even locally. For many decades now, many urban contexts have been reclaiming streets for other uses. Arguably, Johannesburg and other parts of the country have, in some limited senses, been part of this trajectory. 

Related article:

About a decade and a half after democratisation, policy makers in Johannesburg and regional and national governments adopted what is called a complete streets approach. This agenda seeks to prioritise pedestrians in law, road design and everyday practices. It was accompanied by flashes of campaigns in which, much like the natural experiment that occurred during level four of the lockdown, streets were open for the exclusive use of non-motoring activities. 

Some may recall participating in events called Streets Alive and Open Streets, where streets were “opened” to people walking, cycling, pushing recycling carts, jogging, children drawing artworks on streets and even simply conversing with each other. Motor vehicles were not allowed. The organisation Open Streets Cape Town has for some years now been successfully running such events. 

Grabbing the momentum for public good

In Johannesburg, however, there is not yet much evidence that this concept has gained any purchase. In some Latin American, European and North American contexts, the Covid-19 pandemic has helped to accelerate the momentum for more convivial streets. This is because there has been a realisation that streets that accommodate practices such as walking and cycling are also better suited to fighting the spread of the virus because physical distancing is easier. 

Johannesburg and other South African cities could re-energise this agenda in the next phases of the lockdown. Doing so will help address the coronavirus pandemic. It will also help address many other social goals, such as improving public health, if streets can be safe spaces for exercise. Crucially, it will go a long way towards overturning the colonial and apartheid legacy of streets as staging sites for oppression long after the pandemic becomes a distant memory.

This article is based on completed published research and a forthcoming academic paper.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.