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  • 12.14.15

Johannesburg Just Finished A Month-Long Experiment To Get People To Stop Driving

Can the richest square mile in Africa live without cars?

If you work in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, you probably drive to your office. The traffic coming in and out of the Sandton neighborhood–home to dozens of corporate headquarters, and known as the richest square mile in Africa–is the worst in the city.

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So when local officials started thinking about improving sustainable transportation, they decided to start with the biggest challenge: How could they convince investment bankers and executives to get out of their cars?

For the month of October, Johannesburg was the site of the second Ecomobility World Challenge. The first, held in Suwon, South Korea, completely shut cars out of a neighborhood for a month. In Korea, things were a little simpler: the neighborhood, with both homes and some businesses, didn’t have as many people.

ECO WATER SLIDE39 – new use of the street

“Johannesburg didn’t only have to talk to a couple thousand residents, but to 120,000 commuters that go into Sandton every morning and every evening,” says Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, creative director at The Urban Idea, who created the idea for the Ecomobility Festivals.

“We looked at other neighborhoods, one more similar to the one in Korea, but the mayor said, ‘That’s boring, because those people can live without a car whenever they want–it doesn’t really require a big effort of the city,'” says Otto-Zimmermann. “He said, ‘When I do something, it should be bold, and tackle the most difficult area.”

Ultimately, the setting was even more challenging than they expected. “The whole thing started with the idea that we need to make Sandton car-free,” he says. “Of course all the negotiations with the companies and so on took us back to the reality that it’s not possible to block the streets for all of those big companies at once.”

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Instead, they did as much as possible, adding new bike lanes, wider sidewalks, shutting down lanes of traffic for a new rapid bus transit route, adding park and ride lots, extra train cars on the local light rail system, new bike rental stations, and blocking a few streets.

The goal: to give commuters a taste of what life could be like with a better transportation system.

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For those who tried out the trains and buses, it was positive. “Some of them said, ‘I’ve never ridden a bus, but it’s really not that bad,'” says Otto-Zimmerman. “People really appreciated that now you could can do your emails, your social networking, or you can read a book or the newspaper rather than sitting in a car stuck in traffic.”

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Not everyone was willing to try something different. Despite the fact that the public transit options were often faster than driving–especially since lanes were shut down for the festival–the majority of people continued to drive.

Still, the number of commuters in cars decreased 22% during the experiment. And the city is hoping that the experience will lead to lasting changes. “The mayor wanted to shake the area, to make a bold statement, get a shock wave going through the city and the companies,” says Otto-Zimmerman.

It’s a change in direction that will be even more important as the city continues to grow. Two new skyscrapers in development now, for example, will add parking that creates the option of bringing another 10,000 to 20,000 cars to the area every day if people don’t start using alternative transportation.

Hosting the experiment was a way to quickly bring cash to much-needed new infrastructure. “I see it a little bit, on a very small scale, like why cities want to host Olympic games,” Otto-Zimmerman says. “They are a torture for the citizens–a lot of visitors coming, and so on–but they can focus attention on certain issues, they can mobilize investment money for some improvement–and hoping that the legacy that is left is worth the effort and pain.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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