“A new research direction identified by the Stellenbosch Smart Mobility Lab (SSML) is the consideration of mobility as an urban integrator. This is an important topic in South Africa, where there is a real need to redress past inequalities and resulting spatial problems caused by the country’s history,” said Megan Bruwer of the Department of Civil Engineering at Stellenbosch University. “In addressing this history, both urban planners and transport practitioners must strive to improve spatial and community integration. One of the primary enablers of integration is mobility – the movement of people and goods, which can be greatly improved through correct transport planning.”
“The SSML is a test-bed based research centre that considers mobility solutions in a developing country context. Our test-bed research into mobility and integration will be focused on the proposed Adam Tas Corridor development in Stellenbosch,” explained Johann Andersen of the same department.
Bruwer and Andersen were presenting the outputs of workshops they have held while at STIAS to unpack some of the research questions that need to be tackled and turn these into concrete proposals and funding applications.
“We are at the beginning of involvement in the ATC project,” explained Bruwer. “Our residency was about holding workshops to identify mobility deficits in Stellenbosch, a vision for future mobility and future research needs.”
The research topics identified will be explored by postgraduate students of the SSML over the next five years, in co-operation with stakeholders and planners of the ATC.
The Adam Tas Corridor is an emerging urban transformation district in Stellenbosch. The vision is to create an integrated urban-development corridor that is liveable, safe, resource-efficient, socially integrated and economically inclusive. The project will provide infrastructure and spaces for increased community integration. Planning of the corridor is at an advanced stage and has involved a multidisciplinary group, including local and provincial planning authorities, urban developers and various Stellenbosch-based interested and affected parties. (For more see: https://stias.ac.za/2019/04/unlocking-the-regeneration-and-transformation-potential-to-build-the-urban-society-we-all-want-in-stellenbosch-the-adam-tas-corridor-project/ and https://stias.ac.za/2020/06/conscious-choice-needed-to-restructure-settlements-towards-a-healed-future/)
From test-bed to real world
Andersen explained that the SSML is a research facility established in 2014 at the Department of Civil Engineering of Stellenbosch University. It follows a multidisciplinary approach encompassing various engineering specialities as well as geographical information systems, applied maths and statistics, and behavioural sciences to research mobility solutions. The SSML also provides opportunity for transportation education and training around mobility systems and the application of technology and communications systems on the transport sector, particularly in a South African and developing country context. It follows a test-bed approach, using Stellenbosch as a case study for most of the research. Input from the environment is used to test systems in the lab, but also to implement strategies and observe the real-world implications.
“Stellenbosch is an ideal setting as it has a clear urban boundary, a big traffic problem and good interactions with local authorities and planners,” he explained.
“We have state-of-the art equipment for micro-simulation, traffic signal controller software as well as real-time video feeds and historic traffic data. This allows us to understand the link between vehicles, people and infrastructure.”
One of the goals of the SSML is to create a “data rich” hub in Stellenbosch with information on how people move, what transport they use, freight movements as well as pedestrian movements on campus and in commercial areas.
Bruwer explained that mobility is a huge part of the ATC project and “offers a great opportunity for us to take the test-bed outside and expand our scope into social integration”.
They both described mobility as the biggest problem facing the town with no efficient formal public transport, heavy congestion and the continued growth but increasing segmentation of Kayamandi.
Stellenbosch has developed hugely in the last ten years but people can’t afford to live in the town and one third of the university’s students and half of its staff commute daily from surrounding towns.
“The municipality cannot keep up with the growth rate in Kayamandi,” said Bruwer. “They know they have to densify. We have reached the urban edge.”
“Currently 50% of the CBD is allocated to parking and roads,” she continued. “This infrastructure however, does not solve the congestion issue, which hampers economic development. The future relies on reducing the congestion – this will require increased usage of high-quality public transport, more efficient transport options including bike share, scooters and micro-electric vehicles and a car-free core.”
“Ideally we want to create an environment where you don’t have to own a vehicle because there are other efficient options,” added Andersen. “Everyone must feel that public transport is for them. We have to make it uncomfortable for people to use cars and attractive for people to walk or use public transport.”
In other parts of the world car sales and the acquisition of driving licences are on the decline as people opt for other transport options. “Owning a car is still a status symbol here,” said Bruwer, “but we have to provide alternatives to change minds.”
With these ideas in mind, the workshops identified some overall research themes including designing for Mobility as a Service, Smart City mobility options; investigating the mobility future using the catalytic effect of ATC; and, looking at how to place minibus taxis at the heart of increasing mobility.
“We mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to minibus taxis,” said Bruwer. “Currently they provide 60% of all public transport trips and operate at profit with no subsidies. We shouldn’t ignore what they have done. They have a role in future mobility in small and big cities.”
In discussion they spoke about the importance of buy-in from all the different levels of government, stakeholders and private property owners.
Bruwer explained that land parcels that become available for redevelopment in the ATC zone, should be encouraged to be developed with the intent to put the future of Stellenbosch at the forefront, and incorporate innovative land use to maximise the forward movement of Stellenbosch.”
They also addressed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s no doubt that transport will change, mobility will change and traffic patterns will change,” said Bruwer. “As one example, the AASA are anticipating that aeroplane occupancy will only reach pre-COVID levels by 2024. We still don’t fully understand all the effects but change is an opportunity to shape a future with less traffic, but improved mobility.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan