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Beating the traffic: Is Cape Town on the right track?

Traffic problems are a huge challenge for many in Cape Town, not least because of the legacy of apartheid spatial planning. Zanine Wolf reports on what’s been done, what’s in the pipeline and what some of the sticking points are.

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Like most developing cities across the world, Cape Town has its fair share of traffic woes to contend with.
Just ask anyone who hits the N2 in from the eastern townships – from 6am to 9am it’s jam-packed. The M3 from the south is also notorious for a crush at rush hour, as are the R27 and M5.

But the daily trip into work is particularly dire for low-income households, which spend, on average, 45% of their salary on transport, according to the City’s Transport Development Index.

People in this bracket have to travel between 45km and 70km a day for work opportunities.

That’s because during apartheid, cities were designed to keep black people out of commercial centres and white suburbs. The unfortunate consequences persist today. Most of these commuters travel in from Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain, says the study.

The City has ambitious plans to help build an integrated city and transport system to make commuting easier for everyone. But there is a lot of work to be done. Whether it’s snaking through gridlocked traffic, negotiating foul weather and unruly taxis, or waiting for trains that never arrive, it’s not always plain sailing for Capetonians to get where they need to be.

Public transport

Both Brett Herron, the City’s Mayoral Committee member for transport, and Ryan Ravens, CEO of Accelerate, a Cape Town business leadership organisation, concur that to get private cars off the road and more people using public transport, safe and reliable alternatives need to be in place. How is this being tackled?

Metrorail is key to the solution but – currently blighted by theft and vandalism – is unable to offer a reliable service. Since 2014, damage to trains has cost Metrorail about R198 million.

Passenger rail, with its ability to transport thousands of commuters at a time, “should be the backbone of public transport in the city,” said Herron. “The apartheid government and our new democratic national government neglected passenger rail for decades and it will take at least another five to seven years or so before we will see the benefits of Metrorail’s new rolling stock in Cape Town,” he said.

There is a new rail link in the pipeline, with the city and the Passenger Rail Service of South Africa (Prasa) discussing a Blue Downs rail line, to link the metro south-east with the northern suburbs. It’s hoped this will “ease the huge demand for travel in this direction,” said Herron. Prasa had appointed a project management team and the design of this rail line was under way, he said.

But the all-too frequent disruption to Metrorail services has a major knock-on effect, affecting productivity, and many commuters have been forced back on to the road – which doesn’t help congestion.

To try to protect its infrastructure, Metrorail has placed guards in critical hotspots, designed cages to lock off equipment and apparatus, ensured equipment is micro-chipped and CCTV cameras installed, and worked closely with the City’s Metal Theft Unit to bring criminals to book.

But, as Richard Walker, the regional manager of Metrorail points out, the issue of cable theft is rooted in broader socio-economic ills such as poverty, unemployment, and, in the Western Cape, the drug scourge.

It’s not a battle Metrorail can win on its own. There are plans to modernise Metrorail’s central line but as Walker says, “We can’t just be reactive. We need to partner with others – the police, the City and civil society – to help change people’s mindsets.”

Commenting on rail, Professor Roger Behrens director of the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies, said “some devolution of regulatory authority to the City will be necessary to enable a more integrated public transport network”.

Will more roads help?

The City has committed R750 million to develop road infrastructure. Cape Town’s three major road congestion points – Kuils River, Kommetjie and Blouberg – have been prioritised.

Rush hour lasts three hours in these areas as opposed to two hours elsewhere, and to ease gridlock, existing roads will be upgraded, extra lanes added and traffic signals modified to improve traffic flow.

But, Herron cautions, “the idea that we can build roads to solve the congestion problem is something we have to dispel quite quickly”. Not only is there finite space, he points out, because we’re hemmed in by the sea and the mountains, but as quickly as we build roads, cars will be there to fill them.

What’s needed, Herron maintains, is “a shift in behaviour. We need people to move from single occupancy private vehicles into shared mobility – using public transport or sharing your own car, with more than one person travelling in it.”

Ravens agrees and adds that corporates also have a role to play in helping shift behaviour, “whether it’s introducing flexi-time or allowing employers to work remotely or to hot-desk”; meaning people could travel to work at different times, and not all at rush hour.

Some have suggested congestion fines for coming to the inner city, as is the practice in cities like London, but the City would not consider this, said Herron, as it was unrealistic to do so before public transport options improved significantly.

“We are working as fast as we can to provide real alternatives but it will take some years to get there,” he added.
Charging users might be the best way to dramatically change behaviour, said Professor Behrens, but it would likely meet with consumer resistance, as had happened with e-tolls.

An interconnected system

The City has been working on having one inter-connected network in Cape Town, explained Herron, where all land-based networks would be under the City’s authority.

Right now there are three different authorities involved in transport – MyCiTi is managed by the City, Golden Arrow Bus Service is contracted by the province, and Metrorail is run by national government through Prasa, which is currently embroiled in an investigation into irregularly awarded tenders.

And the routes aren’t co-ordinated, making it difficult to switch between transport modes. The City hopes to change this and make public transport less fragmented.

The uptake on MyCiTi buses has been good, said Herron. Since the launch in May 2010, to July this year, approximately 49,9 million passenger journeys were made on the service, he said. A total of 1 571 393 passenger journeys were recorded in July and a total of 61 681 passenger journeys were recorded on each weekday during July.
There are plans to integrate Golden Arrow and MyCiTi. But one of the delays, according to Herron, “is the National Minister of Transport’s failure to assign the contracting authority function to the City of Cape Town”.

“Once we have the contracting authority, the City will integrate the Golden Arrow Bus Service (GABS) routes with the MyCiTi footprint, instead of replacing GABS routes as was the case in Phase 1 of the MyCiTi service.

“It is crucial that this assignment is resolved urgently and we have now declared an inter-governmental dispute with the Minister over her failure or refusal to assign the function to us,” he added.

A single transport authority, it’s hoped, will make public transport seamless – with one payment and ticketing system and integrated routes, commuters can more easily hop between bus, rail and minibus taxis.


The City’s vision is to get a sizeable portion of commuters ditching their cars and cycling into work. To this end, 400 cycle lanes have been built, with more lanes being added every year.

In a period of two and a half hours, in the morning rush-hour during winter, up to 105 cyclists used the cycle lane along the R27 between Cape Town and Table View. On the cycle lane along Old Paarl Road, Brackenfell, the number recorded was 182. The City was “satisfied that these lanes are an important addition to our non-motorised transport strategy,” said Herron.

But getting people to cycle will require a change in mindset. As Ravens says, “we need to shift the perception of cycling as a sport to an actual mode of transport”.

Cycling figures were low, said Professor Behrens, adding that the key would be to join up lanes to create network effects.


Reimagining the city

The City isn’t just tackling congestion by improving road infrastructure and beefing up public transport. There’s also a drive to transform our urban spaces by putting people close to transport links – and to use these as a catalyst for other development.

Two areas have been earmarked for development and densification: the Voortrekker Road Corridor, which includes suburbs such as Bellville, Elsies River, Goodwood, Maitland, Ndabeni and Parow, and the Metro South East, which includes Athlone, Bonteheuwel, Khayelitsha, Langa, Mitchells Plain, Nyanga, Philippi and Woodstock. Already anchored by public transport, the goal is to develop these corridors into a thriving mix of business, retail and residential areas.

Private sector buy-in will be critical to help revitalise these areas. It will spur economic activity but also, it’s hoped, get us one step closer to realising, as Herron puts it, “an integrated city where people are living, working and playing in close proximity to each other”.

Hopefully, the City’s various initiatives will be game-changers that make getting from A to B a lot simpler.

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