Cape Town shows how other cities could limit climate change with new mobility solutions

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mikhail Manuel, City of Cape Town Councillor and former transport researcher, Cape Town


  • The pandemic brought a reprieve to carbon emissions, but life will return to normal and with that will come congestion, especially in Global South cities.
  • To solve the city mobility crisis requires a shift in our thinking to a whole-of-society approach, with building partnerships as the modus operandi.
  • The perfect city to trial this opportunity is Cape Town, which has the potential for unique capacity within its city administration to pursue innovative solutions.

The elephant in the room since 11 March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, has been climate change. The pandemic brought a reprieve to carbon emissions; but life will return to normal, and with it will come congestion – the frustrating by-product of a growing city.

The transport sector is a major contributor to carbon emissions in the Global South, and as we have seen in e-mobility, opportunities abound. However, mitigating climate change post-COVID-19 has gotten more complex for city governments given the urgent need for social aid, unplanned health infrastructure, business closures and job losses.

With all these challenges at play, no wonder climate change has been the elephant in the room.

Poor quality of mobility

Even prior to the pandemic, Global South cities struggled to reduce carbon emissions in the transport sector. The top 10 Global South carbon emitters contributed 58% to the world’s carbon emissions in 2017. South Africa ranked eighth contributing 2% – on a par with Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey and Thailand. Only Saudi Arabia, Iran, India and China contributed greater amounts of carbon in 2017.

Image: OECD

Of the top 10 Global South carbon emitting countries, five ranked in the top 10 of most congested countries in the world. South Africa ranking eighth again.

Congestion is being driven by rapid urban migration, the popularity of private cars and a lack of adequate public transport alternatives. In South Africa, Cape Town was the most congested city in 2017 – precipitated by the failure of the urban rail network maintained and operated by the South African national government. However, the bare bones of the transport offering in Cape Town and the segmented government authority over the transport sector in South Africa made it highly likely that the quality of mobility in Cape Town would steadily decline.

Image: City of Cape Town

The mobility challenges that Cape Town faces don’t make it an outlier; it is much the same as many other Global South cities. Private vehicles remain popular, cities are experiencing rapid urban migration, large fleets of privately-operated paratransit services owned by micro businesses comprise considerable portions of the modal split, and urban rail and conventional bus systems are often old and outdated. In many of these cities, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) became popular in the early 2000’s, but it has proven to be less impactful than hoped.

Aside from Curitiba in Brazil, where BRT was founded in 1974, the major cities of the remaining Global South top 10 emitters all launched their first BRT lines between 2004 and 2011, Cape Town being the most recent and Saudi Arabia having approved plans for BRT in 2012. The world has had some time to reflect upon the past decade’s BRT-hype – we have found that it is not the panacea of solutions for mobility in developing cities, as initially thought. BRT has a valuable place when buses run on dedicated lanes, have advantages at intersections, and use similar ticketing and alighting practices to urban rail. As a lower cost alternative for mass mobility, it is great. As a way to shift the dominant paratransit modes of Global South cities, it is cumbersome and unsustainable.

So, what do we do in Global South cities that continue to grow rapidly, contribute significantly to CO2 emissions, and where residents prefer to own private cars because public transport is not sufficient?

Model city

The answer is to shift our thinking to a whole-of-society approach and let building partnerships be the modus operandi. The perfect city to trial this opportunity is Cape Town.

Notwithstanding the encumbering nature of the segmented government authority over the transport sector in South Africa, Cape Town has the potential for unique capacity within its city administration to pursue innovative solutions. The Western Cape Government – the province in which Cape Town sits – has also demonstrated a similar willingness and capacity to innovate.

The city is also home to mobility initiatives driven by the private sector, civil society and academia. There are pioneers in paratransit mapping, research into green mobility, and a willingness of local minibus-taxi operators to engage around improving safety and service quality. It is unique to find such a comprehensive mix of actors pursuing solutions to address what is a city mobility crisis. A crisis common to the Global South. Africa

What is the World Economic Forum on Africa?

With elections taking place in more than 20 African countries in 2019, the world’s youngest continent is facing a new era.

Held under the theme ‘Shaping Inclusive Growth and Shared Futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ the 28th World Economic Forum on Africa will convene more than 1,000 regional and global leaders from government, business, civil society and academia.

The event (held 4-6 September 2019) will explore new regional partnerships and entrepreneurial and agile leadership to create pathways for shared prosperity and drive a sustainable future.

Participants will discuss ways to accelerate progress on five transformative pan-African agendas in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, addressing the African Union’s Agenda 2063 priorities.

Read more about the Forum’s Impact in Africa and our launch of a new Africa Growth Platform to scale the region’s start-ups for success.

Read our guide to how to follow #af19 across our digital channels. We encourage followers to post, share, and retweet by tagging our accounts and by using our official hashtag.

Become a Member or Partner to participate in the Forum’s year-round annual and regional events. Contact us now.

Post-COVID, cities will be left with stretched budgets, a warming climate and complex transport sectors for which no panacea solution seems evident. Our hope lies in leveraging existing initiatives so that a variety of solutions can collectively reduce carbon emissions.

Cape Town’s depth of active, innovative, and competent stakeholders in government, private sector, academia and civil society offers an opportunity to trial the whole-of-society approach for the mobility-climate change nexus in a Global South city.

Getting this right would be a milestone for Global South mobility development and a life saver for the world.

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