Compassion, not calculus

Recent public marches against road tolls highlight the fact that urban road transport can still be politicised actively in cities of the global south. By Gordon Pirie

Of all the junk that clutters South Africa’s urban roadsides, towering advertising hoardings are among the worst offenders. Traffic authorities denounce as distractions the modest eye-level bunches of fresh flowers posted as roadside memorials to people who have been killed in motor crashes, but they blithely tolerate garish litter intended to persuade passing motorists about the virtues of some or other service or commodity. The imp(r)udence of flogging new models of motor vehicle from these oversize hoardings is breathtaking: each such advertisement should carry an urban health warning.

Giant roadside advertising hoardings are lurid impositions—they also distract, and subtract. They cast real and metaphorical shadows. They restrict views and they square nature. They turn grass verges into commodities sold off to the highest bidder. Topping the hoardings with solar panels is a lame apology. Passive commercialisation of traffic corridors is nothing compared to the next generation of road ‘whoreding’. Imposing erections are getting a leg over the road. Gantries slung across motorways are coming into view ominously. They do not suspend pedestrian bridges joining roadside communities isolated by tarmac. They do not suspend neon-lit, greasy spoon eateries where weary motorists and truckers perch on plastic seats over the motorway, staring down at metal cocoons moving beneath.

Instead, the new gantries carry the technology of automated road-user pricing and policing. The structures also embody the assumptions, values and practices of civic authorities, property owners and engineers from several centuries back. Arch in both design and attitude, the tolling barriers emerge from and express views on ownership, entitlement and control in cities, but don’t invite discussion of those presumptions. So retro in purpose and shape, road toll gantries straddling motorways may even be mistaken for hangmen’s scaffolds. All that is missing is a cubist design that inserts a triangular blade shape at the top. An arsenal of cameras, code detectors and transmission devices crest these modern battlements. But who is the enemy? What is being protected? What is being fought for?

If there is good news, it is that urban road transport can still be politicised actively in cities of the global south

Road tolling is not new. In the Roman Empire, bridges were tolled. In medieval times, there were tolls at city gates and on countryside estates where landlords charged for dubious road improvements. In recent incarnations, tolls have been levied at bridges and tunnels that offer more direct travel options than circuitous overland services, or faster travel than slow lake and river ferries. North America’s motorway network is dotted with tollbooths—and legend is dotted with the antics of latter-day cowboys trying to evade payment. Other classical figures heave into view: the highway robber is one.
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