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Cape Town’s unfinished freeways: what it will take to complete the job

One of Cape Town’s infamous “unfinished highways”. Meraj Chhaya/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Overlooking one of the busiest intersections in the central City of Cape Town, en route to one of its biggest tourist attractions, the Waterfront, are two road stubs hanging high above the ground. They form part of the city’s unfinished Foreshore freeways. Follow the arc that the road describes and you can see another stub of a freeway – also suspended and incomplete – at the opposite side of the intersection.

Elsewhere, more hidden from public scrutiny, are four more suspended and incomplete pieces of two-lane freeway.

The unfinished roads are iconic Cape Town structures. They’re a source of some embarrassment. They are also an anachronism of road engineering, which values the speed and the throughput which freeways deliver, and which tends to finish what it starts.

The roads were designed in the 1960s and spearheaded by a Cape Town engineer who was inspired by the freeway building work of New York’s famous planner Robert Moses.

Cape Town’s city council stopped construction of the Foreshore freeways in 1975. A number of factors contributed to this. Internationally, the mood had shifted away from urban freeway building. In the US, for instance, there were anti-highway protests.

Locally, the South African government was directing infrastructure spending to new townships. These were being built to accommodate so-called coloured people who were being forced to move out of areas the apartheid government was setting aside exclusively for “white” people. There was also a widespread sense that the freeways were over-designed. Because of these various shifts, money was no longer available from the national government to subsidise the Foreshore scheme.

In the decades that followed, there have been various attempts at getting the freeways completed. The most recent has been over 2017 and into 2018, when the latest iteration of Cape Town’s Foreshore Precinct scheme was launched with great fanfare. Finally, it looked as though the “unfinished” freeways would be completed. But it was not to be.

A few years ago, I used the “unfinished” Foreshore Freeway scheme in my PhD research to answer questions about major road projects. How do they happen? What causes them to stop and, in some cases – as with the Foreshore schemes – to stay stuck in an “unfinished” state for over 40 years? The findings offer some useful insights into what it might take to finally complete work on Cape Town’s white elephant freeways: consensus building, and commitment.

Understanding freeway engineering

My work drew on thinking which views traffic and freeway engineering as political disciplines – not as politically neutral applied sciences (which is how they think of themselves).

For example, there’s evidence that early traffic engineering was influenced by motor and oil companies. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that traffic engineering and transport planning have skewed attention and resources towards schemes – such as freeways – that favour private vehicles rather than towards major public transport investments.

My research drew on theory from, among others, the field of Science and Technology Studies. In particular I drew on the writing of Dutch scholar Wiebe Bijker.

Bijker theorised that technologies only become stable once sufficient interests coalesce around a particular idea. He used the example of early bicycle development, showing how myriad bicycle designs had been in use until the various groups interested in building bicycles came to some shared, implicit consensus.

Cape Town’s unfinished freeways fit Bijker’s theory: all of the plans to finish them, including the most recent set, didn’t attract the consensus of interests he describes. There wasn’t a clear voice on the scheme from City of Cape Town authorities in the brief to consultants. Mutterings against the scheme were evident from early on.

The exact role and use of low-income housing in the location was questioned. The impact of most of the proposed schemes on the city’s greater waterfront area was questioned. And then the scheme was halted once more, leaving the “unfinished” freeways again untouched.

So what would it take to get the Foreshore Freeway scheme going again?

Marshalling shared interests

If we take Bijker’s theories seriously then shifting the status quo would require one of two routes. The first would involve an authoritarian-type regime. The second would see consensus among the various interest groups in the Cape Town’s administration, and in the city at large.

An authoritarian-type regime would drive the scheme through regardless of opposition. But it cannot be imagined in the robust civic activism currently surrounding transport and space issues in South Africa.

A consensus approach would lead to the eventual coalescing around a shared idea for the area. This would mean significantly more interests who were in favour, and far fewer in opposition. A stable solution would be one which cannot be upended by oppositional voices because the political weight of those in favour is too strong.

I don’t see this kind of marshalling of shared interests in favour of development on the Foreshore coming from the City of Cape Town itself. But there are now multiple design agencies who invested their resources to examine the Foreshore area in detail.

If they are able to overcome their own vested interests and work towards a coalescing of interests then perhaps there is a possibility that the logjam will finally be broken.

I believe it’s possible to end the impasse. But it will require an approach that hasn’t been mastered yet: genuine consensus building, and the patience and commitment this will require. Neither has been in evidence for the past half a century.

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