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One big traffic jam: South Africa takes on car culture with EcoMobility

One big traffic jam: South Africa takes on car culture with EcoMobility
A self-appointed traffic officer who works for tips directs traffic on July 26, 2012, around a busy taxi rank in the Johannesburg, the type of traffic snarl the EcoMobility effort hopes to ease by encouraging bicycle and foot traffic. (Morne De Klerk / Getty Images)

Innocent Mofumade is standing by a traffic light in broiling heat wearing a gray wool hat over his dreadlocks, a fluorescent green vest bearing the words "Festival Guide" and a gentle, fixed smile.

But the "festival" in Sandton, South Africa's upscale commercial and banking capital, isn't particularly festive. It consists of street closures, traffic gridlock, a heavy police presence and high metal barriers that look ready to hold back a rioting crowd.

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It's actually EcoMobility, a giant monthlong traffic "experiment" (in the words of one city bureaucrat) launched this week in the Johannesburg suburb with little warning, to reduce the use of automobiles.

Mofumade, 23, is an unemployed volunteer with just a few days' training. The main thing he was told was that people were going to be mad.

The trainers' advice? "They told us to always be calm, always put a smile on your face," he says.

With few cycling paths or reliable public transportation options, authorities opted for shock therapy to wean people off their cars.

Mofumade's job — and that of about 200 other volunteers, most of them young jobless people — is to handle the enraged drivers. He stands by a metal traffic barrier blocking access to one of Sandton's usually busy thoroughfares and offers advice on which roads are open.

A car swerves to a halt, and a man with dark glasses and a scowl rolls down the window. He looks tense. Mofumade approaches softly, like an intruder trying to avoid waking a large dog, and tells him the circuitous route that will be required to get off the blocked street. The man mutters a curt thank you and speeds off.

The city is offering free minibuses for pedestrians during the experiment. They occasionally drift by, mostly empty.

"Eish, it's hot," says Mofumade, using the quintessentially South African expression conveying bother or frustration.

The festival is supposed to encourage people to cycle or walk, despite the heat, but the lanes dedicated for cyclists and pedestrians for the most part are empty. Transportation Minister Dipuo Peters said recently that the EcoMobility festival would change perceptions that walking was only for the poor.

Mofumade often has to walk, or use the often ramshackle private commuter minibuses that form the country's main mass transportation system.

His mild, cautious manner makes him a perfect ambassador for the festival. He finished high school last year and got a certificate from a small private college as an IT technician, but has never worked in the field. All he managed was a few weeks of casual work in a drugstore and on a building site to pay the tuition fees.

"Eish, I would love to go to university, but the fees is the ones I can't afford," he says. "I was just sitting at home. I just decided to volunteer for this EcoMobility so I can be busy doing something."

A long line of cars make U-turns as he stands by the barrier waving them away. A van driver asks to pass, but Mofumade explains that the blocked street has been converted to one-way.

"This thing of yours is so boring. It can't work. It won't work," the van driver says irritably before pulling away.

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"This is the kind of people we deal with out here," Mofumade says.

Suddenly, a shiny red car speeds around the barrier on the wrong side of the road. Mofumade runs toward the car, waving his arms, but the driver just screeches past him going the wrong way up the street.

"Eish! Eish! See that guy now," Mofumade says, crestfallen. The driver is just one of many that day who have ignored him and sped past. "It's going to cause an accident, but it won't be my fault. That's what I've been asking myself. What if a car comes through and hits another car? That won't be my fault."

He speaks as though he's afraid that he might be blamed for failing to hold back the tide.

At times, Mofumade has to grit his teeth and keep his smile pasted on, fighting back anger as drivers take out their frustration on him. Other festival guides say some drivers tried to bribe them a couple of dollars to let them pass.

"There was one lady, she was so angry because of the closed road," he says. "She was like, 'Where will I pass?' She said she hates this thing, this whole thing."

It's not clear whether the monthlong experiment will turn into a future traffic system. Nhlanhla Ngobeni, 25, a consultant with the engineering company that helped develop the routes for EcoMobility, drops by to see how things are going at Mofumade's intersection. He says it's difficult to get drivers out of their cars and onto bicycles.

"A lot of people are married to their cars. I'd also prefer going to work in my car. People don't ride to work because everyone here [in Sandton] wears a suit. They don't want to come to work all sweaty," Ngobeni says.

Mofumade hasn't seen any cyclists taking advantage of roads dedicated to bicycles. But he thinks the system will work in the end. At least he's learning something.

"I'm just learning to deal with people, just dealing with people when they're angry."

By noon, most of the festival guides have retreated to the shade of nearby trees to escape the heat, with the temperature hovering above 90.

On West Street, Sandton's main thoroughfare, the side blocked off for the use of bicycles and pedestrians is empty except for a lone ice-cream seller, tinkling along on his bicycle with a red umbrella on top.

A businessman strides by with a laptop bag, furious that EcoMobility has made him "very late" for an appointment.

A few minutes later, six men stride up the middle of the vacant road. A couple of them drop and do fast pushups, then leap up and head on their way. They're all shouting happily, tossing around a ball.

At least somebody's happy with the change.

Follow @robyndixon_LAT on Twitter for news out of Africa

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