Proposed changes to the R44 between Stellenbosch and Somerset West were discussed on 15 August at a public meeting arranged by Mr Donald Grant, Western Cape Minister of Public Works and Transport, and Advocate Gesie van Deventer, Mayor of Stellenbosch. People at the meeting were concerned that the engineers in charge of the project ignored prior comments or at the least, that there were no indication that comments and recommendations by interested parties were given careful consideration. Minister Grant said this would be looked at again.
Other comments at the meeting were that the plans were excessively expensive and extensive, rather than appropriate for the area and safe for farm workers, tourists and schoolchildren.
Previous comments, amongst others by experts, were that the provincial engineers and their consultants’ transport philosophy, as reflected in their comments and motivations, had been overtaken by time. They are seen to operate in silos, rather than taking into account already accepted new views and working in consultation with experts from other disciplines. The improvements to the R44 could have been planned better within a larger context of the broader environment and the community. In the initial planning of the road, danger points and traffic problems in Stellenbosch, beyond the point where the R44 ends at the town border, were not taken into account.
The Municipality had previously queried, in comments, whether funds for proposed improvements to the R44 presented the best way in which to spend hundreds of millions of rands. The general feeling was that the money could be spent more effectively and meaningfully in alternative ways and places to improve traffic and safety. Alternative solutions have not been investigated adequately.
From comments at the meeting an observer could conclude that the engineers and users at times still talk past each other in circles.
A speaker, for example, spoke of the increasing use of circles elsewhere in the world, also in rural areas such as the one through which the R44 runs. He wanted to know why circles were not considered – there is sound research, after all, that indicates that circles enhance safety and new innovations makes circles safe for cyclists and pedestrians as well. In his answer to this question, the engineer referred to an old, historic circle from one of the world’s most dense traffic points, the Arc de Triomphe in the centre of Paris, to disprove the question about the possible use of innovation in a rural area.
Not everyone, even some motorists in Paris as well as experts, will agree with the engineer’s assumption that the circle around the Arc de Triomphe is an excellent example of chaos and an overall failure.
This is not the argument that we want to pursue further in this instance. What we notice is that the question and the answer provide an indication that we speak and think from different worlds.
This makes one to ask: Are the conditions for any intervention not to be found equally in the tar and concrete laid and the cultual context within which such an intervention is introduced? Circles, for instance, work best when their planning is correct and innovative, and also when the users practise the old virtues of consideration and obedience?
The answer probably is to not immediately accept that an intervention will not work in our situation. The answer may be that planning is not to be done in isolation but in discussions with the community and also with different types of experts, in short, with people. The planning and implementation and use of a durable improvement may be part of a process civil engagement and education.
This is what engineers at Apple and Google and many of the world’s leading engineering companies have discovered in the past decade. The best work by engineers is not designed in isolation from experts in other disciplines and users. Road engineers also have discovered that a road is not always the fastest, shortest straight line from point A to point B – it sometimes involves a journey with much to discover in the landscape along the way.