Crossing a street in South Africa can be risky: Can art be used to help?

January 31, 2023

A pedestrian crossing in Sea Point has been artistically transformed in an effort to raise awareness of South Africa's high number of pedestrian road fatalities, which is among the highest in the world.

About one in two people killed in traffic accidents in South Africa are pedestrians, more than twice the global average. It is impossible to deny that the design of our streets has a direct impact on the livelihood, health, and quality of life of people who live in our cities and towns.

Last year, on a busy stretch of the vibrant Sea Point Main Road in Cape Town, a public artwork was painted around a frequently used pedestrian crossing, transforming it in an effort to raise pedestrian safety awareness in South Africa and brighten up the city's public spaces.

The artwork, titled "Recollection," was created by local artist Al Luke, of the creative duo Mrs and Mr Luke, and measures 16 x 14 meters. It is part of a project spearheaded by local property developer Blok and urbanism practice and consultancy, Our Future Cities.

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Public art installation alongside pedestrian crossing in Sea Point

These are some crucial figures from a public survey we did following the project's installation, in which we questioned pedestrians about how they felt about the public art piece and its impact on their safety:

  • 90% Support the installation and location of the public artwork
  • 83% Believe art installation at the pedestrian crossing contributes to pedestrian safety awareness
  • 74% Observed hazards to pedestrians using the crossing, prior to the installation of the project
  • 83% Feel more secure crossing the intersection with the new artwork installation
  • 89% Believe there should be more pedestrian crossings, like the one in Sea Point, in Cape Town
  • 64% Believe more could be done to make the pedestrian crossing safer

"We started the process 11 months ago, by approaching the Mayor of Cape Town, City of Cape Town, to see if there was an appetite for an initiative, which we believed would face some red tape to comply with the road and traffic laws. The Mayor was supportive and encouraging, and we set out in the months that followed to find the right local artist who had a meaningful connection to the neighbourhood,” says Rashiq Fataar, CEO and founder of Our Future Cities.

The artist Al Luke, who was already known for transforming bus stops in Johannesburg, was the perfect fit and spoke fondly of his memories of Sea Point. “From a young age Sea Point has always been a destination where I would go with my family as an outing to get close to the ocean, run free in the parks and skate as far as my legs would carry me. And now as a father, it is a place I take my family to enjoy the fresh air, activities and the energy of all the people this little section of our city attracts.”

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Many pedestrians walking over the pedestrian crossing.

With Al Luke on board, Our Future Cities and Blok collaborated with various Transport, Roads, and Traffic officials to establish some implementation boundaries and limitations based on the artwork concept. Gaps or "minimum offsets" between the artwork and existing pedestrian and parking bay markings were among them.

While the teams in charge of ensuring we met all of the regulations were clear and supportive, the real stumbling block was the Public Art Permit stage. The team received word that the application had been rejected several months later, in September, after the artwork was submitted in June 2022.

Despite the minor objections from the local resident group(s), the team did not give up and followed the formal appeal channels to motivate for the project, and in November 2022, the formal approval for the Public Art department was obtained.

While one of our goals was to bring joy and interest to the community by installing a large artwork on the road, an even more important goal was to raise awareness about the poor design of our network and systems for pedestrians (and commuters).

For example, at the very pedestrian crossing where the artwork lives, the traffic lights only provide pedestrians with:

  • 12 seconds to cross four traffic lanes and
  • 7 of those seconds show the pedestrian signal flashing red

This is completely inadequate for the majority of society, including the elderly doing errands in the area, schoolchildren and commuters arriving on taxis and buses, people with disabilities or health conditions, and others who are unable to sprint across.

In addition to the pedestrian crossing times being too short, the distances are too long. Most streets in Cape Town don't have pedestrian safety islands in the median, which are places where pedestrians and cyclists can stop and rest while being protected by kerbs or bollards. The lack of pedestrian safety islands stands in contrast to the recommendations of the NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) which is dedicated to building cities as places for people through a variety of research initiatives. According to NACTO's Urban Street Design Guide, pedestrian safety islands make it safer for people to cross the street at intersections, especially with short crossing times. In a few NACTO initiatives, pedestrian safety islands have been retrofitted to the median of roads. A similar solution would work on South African roads.

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NACTO example of a pedestrian safety island in the median of an intersection, with safety bollard.

Unfortunately, many pedestrian crossings in Cape Town require similar athleticism to that of the Sea Point pedestrian crossing, to get to the other side safely.

People from all over the city arrive by train, bus, or minibus/taxi on Strand Street, the city's central transportation hub, to begin the next leg of their commute - some travelling two or more hours. Despite the fact that the Strand Street pedestrian crossing is bustling with pedestrian activity, cars are prioritised, with:

  • 35 seconds to cross six traffic lanes and
  • 30 of those seconds show the pedestrian signal flashing red

Furthermore, this pattern repeats itself one street over on Adderley Street, leaving only 15 seconds to cross a six-lane road.

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Pedestrian crossing between two transport hubs in Strand Street, Cape Town

Pedestrian conditions aren't much better elsewhere, and at the busiest transport interchange in the Bellville CBD, narrow pavements, short crossing times, and dangerous conditions put commuters and pedestrians at the bottom of the pecking order once more.

This is evident in our observations and research across the city, where we see people frequently unable to cross the street quickly enough and are only halfway across when the red light flashes.

Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula explains, "More than 90% of accidents can be directly attributed to the human element, which invariably relates to the violation of traffic rules."

This means that, in the South African context, pedestrians are constantly at risk from vehicle drivers, in addition to inadequate walking infrastructure design. This demonstrates the importance of interventions in our streets to protect pedestrians, whether they are large-scale legislative changes or smaller-scale initiatives like the Sea Point Pedestrian Crossing Artwork.

While pedestrian crossings appear to be frequently placed correctly, for example, in front of educational institutions, grocery and retail stores, and transportation drop-offs and pick-ups, they are not designed to prioritise or accommodate the volumes of people and types of users. The stressful crossing time diverts pedestrians' attention away from their surroundings, as they must also be alert to any oncoming cars that may be breaking traffic laws, as well as all other risks they face in public.

Projects around the world have made pedestrian spaces not only safer, but also more vibrant, thanks to the Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI). The GDCI prioritises people by working with global communities to reimagine their streets, inspiring leaders, and informing practitioners.

In 2019, the GDCI collaborated with the city of Fortaleza, Brazil, on a project similar to the one in Sea Point, to address a busy street with few to no formal sidewalks. The community used inexpensive, common materials like paint, benches, bollards, and planters to demarcate pedestrian-friendly spaces which reduced the number of walkers in the traffic by 92%. As a result, pedestrians no longer have to share the busy road with cars.

In 2019, Helsinki and Oslo achieved "Vision Zero", a global movement aimed at eliminating traffic-related pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries through a systemic approach and commitment to road safety. With a focus on systematic re-design through an expectation placed on road system designers and policymakers to locate high fatality zones and improve the roadway environment, policies (such as speed management), and other related systems to lessen the severity of crashes. The Vision Zero approach has proven highly successful, as these two cities have reduced pedestrian and cyclist traffic fatalities to zero, demonstrating that their goal of eliminating road deaths is not just a lofty ideal but an attainable goal when properly implemented in other countries.

There are numerous global examples of projects that promote and attain streets without pedestrian fatalities; these are accomplished by joining international initiatives and by taking slow, steady measures.

Our pedestrian crossings represent the first step in creating a safe and walkable city. The fundamental problems and difficulties with South Africa's road laws and the conservative nature of transport departments and traffic officials cannot be resolved by a single artwork-covered crossing, but it demonstrates what could be achieved through numerous small but catalytic interventions to alter how we think about and design streets.

Rashiq Fataar
Rouen Smit
37 Parliament Street
Church Square
Cape Town City Centre
Cape Town, 8000
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