Suwon, South Korea Mayor Yeom Tae-young, in Johannesburg for the 2015 EcoMobility World Festival, gets a first-hand look at some of the ways in which South Africa’s commercial capital is promoting the eco-mobility shift.

Two years ago, Suwon in South Korea became the first city to host the month-long EcoMobility World Festival, which promotes a shift away from private vehicles towards people- and environment-friendly modes of transport.

On Saturday, 3 October, as Johannesburg prepared to open the second edition of the festival, Suwon City Mayor Yeom Tae-young got a first-hand look at some of the ways in which South Africa’s commercial capital is promoting the eco-mobility shift – and how this ties in with the City’s drive for economic growth and transformation.

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The South Korean delegation in Gandhi SquareThe South Korean delegation, led by Mayor Yeom, pose for a group photo in Gandhi square. Eric Itzkin of the City’s Directorate for Arts, and Culture and Heritage is left-most of those kneeling in front. SEE GALLERY BELOWHosted by City officials, Mayor Yeom and his entourage – including a number of ordinary South Korean citizens – were taken on a guided tour between Sandton – venue for the 2015 EcoMobility World Festival – central Johannesburg and Soweto.

Starting at the Garden Court hotel in Sandton, the mayor and his group travelled by minibus taxi to Gandhi Square in the Joburg CBD, where they were met by Eric Itzkin of the City’s Directorate for Arts, and Culture and Heritage.

Itzkin gave the visitors a quick rundown on the history of Gandhi (originally, Government) Square, the site of Johannesburg’s first law courts and nearby lawyers’ offices, which were joined in 1903 by the offices of a young Mahatma Gandhi. As the first Indian attorney in South Africa, Gandhi defended Indians accused of contravening apartheid’s pass laws, and of other political offences.

After 1948 the Square became a bus terminal which served white people only until the end of apartheid in 1994. At the turn of the century, it was completely revamped as part of Joburg’s inner city renewal drive, and is now a major commercial and retail hub. “The other big change is that the bus service is serving the whole city,” Itzkin said.

At the Orlando cycling empowerment centreCity of Joburg Transport MMC Christine Walters and Mayor Yeom with Orlando cycling empowerment centre operators Sipho Tati and Raymond Rampolokeng. SEE GALLERY BELOWThe Square was officially re-named Gandhi Square in 1999, and in 2003 a bronze statue of Gandhi was unveiled there.

From Gandhi Square, the delegation proceeded to the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit (BRT) station at Chancellor House and headed out to Orlando, Soweto, where they were met by City of Joburg Transport MMC Christine Walters.

MMC Walters showed the group round a section of the dedicated cycling-pedestrian pathway that was built last year by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA). The five-kilometre route between Orlando East and Noordgesig connects residents to schools, clinics, Orlando Stadium, the Orlando Police station and magistrate’s court, as well as Rea Vaya BRT and Metrorail stations.

Walters also noted that the cycling and walking lanes had helped to bring together local black and coloured communities that had been artificially separated by apartheid.

The MMC then took the group to Orlando High School, where Mayor Yeom met Sipho Tati and Raymond Rampolokeng, whose cycling empowerment centre – Soweto’s first – is based at the school. A fully functional bicycle workshop, the centre offers cycle spares, repairs and training and sells affordable second-hand bicycles.

Taking a bicycle ride through OrlandoMayor Yeom prepares to take a bicycle ride through Orlando. SEE GALLERY BELOW
The City has been working closely with schools to set up a sustainable cycling programme in the area, and in August partnered with IT company Dimension Data and non-profit organisation Qubeka to donate 293 new bicycles to selected learners from Orlando High and two other local schools.

Tati told the delegation that most Soweto residents still regarded cycling as a luxury rather than as a viable, sustainable mode of transport. “Many locals still think that bicycles are for white people,” he said. “We hope that the EcoMobility Festival will change this mindset.”

Mayor Yeom then took the opportunity to ride a bicycle back to Orlando Stadium, where the delegation took a Rea Vaya bus to their final stop, the Piotrans Depot in Meadowlands, Soweto.

Bus operating company Piotrans, whose shareholders are local minibus taxi operators, has a 12-year contract to manage part of the City’s BRT bus operations. The company’s state-of-the-art parking, refuelling and maintenance depot opened in November 2012.

Mayor Yeom and MMC Walters prepare to board the return busMayor Yeom and MMC Walters prepare to board the return bus at Orlando Stadium Station. SEE GALLERY BELOWThe company’s chief operating officer, Javier Cajiao, told the delegation that the R131-million facility houses up to 277 buses at a time on 6.7 hectares of land, and that, in keeping with the principles behind the BRT project as a whole, it was designed and built along strict environment-friendly lines.

Specially designed mild steel sheeting was used for the roof and cladding to help with climate control, a maximum sunlight design combines with sensor-activated lighting to cut down on electricity use, and water harvesting and recycling facilities are operational in both the administration block and the bus wash bay.

The delegation then returned to Park Station in central Joburg, where they boarded a Gautrain back to Sandton.

Mayor Yeom said he was impressed with the City’s decision to implement the BRT system. “I think it will encourage social cohesion and will be more suitable for the main roads, while taxis and bikes can be used on feeder routes.”

The JDA is currently laying down the infrastructure – dedicated bus lanes, BRT stations, a new bridge across the M1 highway, and associated road and sidewalk upgrades – for the third phase expansion of the Rea Vaya network into the north-eastern suburbs of the City.

Due to start operating in the first half of 2017, the extended BRT service, along with new cycling and pedestrian infrastructure to be rolled out over the next few years, will form part of the concrete legacy of the 2015 EcoMobility World Festival.

Equally important, however, will be the festival’s intangible legacy. As Mayor Yeom pointed out at the conclusion of his tour, Suwon, like Johannesburg, still had to overcome the chief obstacle to a more efficient, eco-mobile transport future – the ingrained reluctance of many of its citizens to park their cars and walk, cycle or use public transport.