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Here's how to solve SA's traffic congestion crisis

2017-02-07 14:37

Duncan Alfreds

BAD SPOTS: Traffic congestion in Cape Town. Image: Duncan Alfreds, News24

Cape Town - You know that feeling - you need to perform a mall-run on a familiar route and out of the blue it hits you - horrendous, bumper-to-bumper traffic and your car becomes a lounge.

Sometimes there might be an actual blockage such as an accident, but mostly it’s just sheer volume on the roads, resulting in an end-to-end parking lot.

South Africans seem to have reached the point of acceptance that peak hour is a fact of life but in Cape Town, there’s no peak hour - it's more akin to peak hours from about 7am to 9am in the morning and from 3.30pm to 6pm in the evening.

Even as the State of the Nation is set to get underway in Cape Town later this week, coinciding with the inevitable closure of roads, the traffic situation in the city can never honestly be described as pleasant.

According to TomTom, Cape Town is the most congested city in SA, and also ranks as the 47th most congested globally.

Second in SA is Johannesburg which also comes in at 77th globally.

Hotspot identification

The funny thing is that I’ve been to some of the more congested cities on TomTom's list such as Istanbul (3rd) and Moscow (5th), and the level of congestion I personally experienced doesn’t appear to be as bad as my hometown.

In Cape Town, the hotspots are easily identifiable; the N1 and N2 heading into Cape Town are well known "parking lots" in the morning, but also the M4 south toward Simon’s Town, as well as the M7 north toward Milnerton.

READ: New traffic law - Readers respond to vehicle impoundments

And because locals know that main routes are congested, they shoot through otherwise quiet suburban roads so that the entire system is grid-locked.

Ideally, people should live close to where they work where you can apply these fantastic ideas of cycling or even walking to offices, relieving some of the strain on the roads, but those ideals rarely work for the majority of commuters who are financially excluded from suburbs closer to the CBD.

Public transport is an obvious candidate as a great people mover.

In Cape Town, most regular train travellers have at least one story to tell about 'Metro-fail' – the infamous moniker for Metrorail – stories about being stuck between stations with no information, being robbed on your way home, or trains that simply don’t arrive.

When “We apologise for any inconvenience,” crackles over the station loudspeaker, it’s often met with a numerous sighs, silent resignation and furious messages to bosses informing them of yet another delay.

The company only has 70 train sets out of an 84 minimum requirement to run the service effectively. Punctuality is 78% - far behind the global standard set by Japan at an average of 0.9 minutes per operational train.

Train commuters are stranded. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Road survival

To the roads then.

While cities such as Moscow (population 12 million) are rated as very congested, there is evidence that they are working to relieve the strain.

Buses and trains operated regularly and to schedule and many roads have pedestrian underground walkways that ensure pedestrians are kept off the road, reducing the likelihood of accidents which further slow traffic down.

Istanbul (population 14.8 million) goes a step further with a regular (every four minutes) train service that runs along the roads and it connects poor neighbourhoods to economic hubs.

READ: Dear traffic officers - Let's leave the money-making ways

You also use one card that works on all public transport systems.

Barcelona train stations have clocks that don’t tell the time. They count down from about three and a half minutes to the arrival of the next train. As the clock hits five seconds, the train arrives. Brilliant.

In Tokyo, even though the average South African wouldn’t even be able to read the writing on the subway, it is virtually idiot proof (as this idiot knows) and takes you almost anywhere in a city of 39 million.

In Oslo, you have the choice of train, tram and bus and I was able to use cashless payment to get around the entire city.

But there’s more that local city fathers can do to ensure better purchase from the roads infrastructure.


From Muizenberg to the deep south of Cape Town, there are 15 traffic lights - I count them and they include pedestrian lights.

But you get no reward for driving at the speed limit - in fact - you are punished because those Bee-Em and GTI racers often shoot through on strawberry-green coloured lights.

The traffic lights appear to have no synchronicity that matches safe driving with a green light. This means the fuel you save driving responsibly gets gobbled as you sit as the lights.

In Los Angeles, traffic signals are optimised in real time to respond to traffic flows and demands, resulting a decrease in average travel time.

Optimising traffic lights can cut commuter times. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

According to Google Maps, you can find reasonable traffic until about Athlone in Cape Town and then you sit. It seems logical that in outlying areas, the metro should develop car parks stations where you can park safely and hop a local tram or train service that delivers you to the city.

Cape Town is making some progress in rolling out its bus rapid transport system but MyCiti is in part the cause for delays where the road is being dug up where some paint could have done a decent enough job.

The city will remain a town until it at least have eight lanes on highways and six on main thoroughfares.

We also have to seriously ask ourselves whether we need military bases within the city limits.

Love for scooters

In Cape Town, the land gobbled by the naval base as well as two military bases and a military airport seems like overkill, pun intended.

We are unlikely to be at war anytime in the foreseeable future and utilising these bases’ land for domestic, commercial and light industrial zoning could go a long way to relieving the load on our roads.

Surely, it’s not too much of a stretch to build a ferry dock from Bloubergstrand to transport commuters to Cape Town as well as from Strandfontein to Simon’s Town via Fish Hoek, and even from Hout Bay to Cape Town, subject to an environmental impact assessment, of course.

SA needs to embrace scooters. It makes no sense that you have to get a separate licence for a little twist-and-go.

Decades ago, you needed a licence for a bicycle and that has landed in the dustbin of history. Ditto for scooter licences.

If you have a car licence, you should be allowed to ride a scooter.

This could have the effect of taking people out of their cars (if the Cape Doctor permits) relieving congestion.

Finally, traffic law enforcement should evolve beyond a staple road block – its function is an impediment to traffic flow.

I’m sure that traffic officers, many of whom live in the suburbs, know where the bottlenecks are and should accordingly blend into traffic and pull drivers that are dangerous off the road.

Given that the only 9% - 14% of fines issued are actually paid, roving traffic officers are better placed to nab offenders and a threat to impound cars will hasten compliance.

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