Victims of our success

2014-07-21 00:00

IF public transport was safe, reliable and accessible, I would leave my car keys behind and choose another way to commute to work. It makes complete sense.

Unfortunately, the public transport systems in Durban and Pietermaritzburg don’t offer the comfort and security of my own car, and like tens of thousands of car owners in both cities, I travel to work alone.

The release last week of the National Household Travel Survey shows that we are becoming victims of our own success.

The survey found that the proportion of South African households that own at least one car has increased almost 50% since 2003, from 22,9% to 32,6%.

There are more taxis operating in KwaZulu-Natal than in any other province.

Transport Minister Dipuo Peters has described the explosion of car and taxi use as reflecting both economic success and the reason behind traffic congestion in the metropolitan areas.

The solution is obvious, but the infrastructure for a reliable public transport system is not yet in place.

In Durban, the Go Durban rapid bus transport system will start only in 2016 and will be developed in phases. In Pietermaritzburg, plans for a new bus system are at an advanced stage.

The rapid bus transport systems in Cape Town and Gauteng have elicited a mixed response from commuters.

Most middle-class car owners still use their own vehicles to and from work, and the Gautrain — while convenient — has yet to lure as many drivers off the road as was envisaged.

But there is another element of our booming middle class that must be considered. The motor vehicle — especially in a developing economy — is a status symbol and for many a measure of success. Driving the latest model or upgrading one’s car every few years has become the norm, while driving a older model is often frowned upon.

An Italian freelance photographer, travelling with me from Durban to Pietermaritzburg some years ago, shared his thoughts on South Africans’ love of cars compared with his people.

While Italy is famous for Lamborghinis and Ferraris, the vast majority of its citizens drive matchbox-sized cars that can glide into the teeniest of parking spaces, he said. In South Africa he had noted, people drive big cars and live in small houses, whereas the Italians chose small cars and large homes.

The result of economic success, especially in the middle class, is that our roads have become more congested, and rush hour in both Durban and Pietermaritzburg has boomed over the past 10 years.

Every day, taxis, cars, trucks and buses compete for the same stretch of freeway or suburban road.

Those who can afford to, buy houses close to a school, their office and a shopping mall. For the rest, that time spent on the road is determined by various factors — from a small fender bender to an accident with fatalities.

Both municipalities have recognised the need to improve infrastructure and the Dr Chota Motala Road, N2/Umgeni Road interchanges (which is expected to be completed only next year) are evidence of this.

But superhighways are limited in their expansion. Gauteng has some behemoths and the N2 between the spaghetti junction interchange and King Shaka International is fast becoming one of the busiest and most accident-prone stretches of road in Durban.

There is potential for expansion here, but this would only be a way of treating the symptoms, rather than addressing the cause of the problem.

The truth is, if the N2 becomes a four- or five-lane highway, it will just fill up with cars as South Africans become more upwardly mobile. The rate of new vehicles being purchased by first-time buyers is accelerating faster than any municipality can build new infrastructure.

Fewer vehicles will lead to fewer accidents — the best way to measure this is to look at the paramedics’ reports during holidays and compare them to when students and pupils return to universities and schools.

Luring people, especially the burgeoning middle class, into using public transport will, in theory, ease congestion on our roads. But the survey found that those who use a bus service are concerned about security issues and overcrowding.

It would be reasonable to assume that these concerns are shared by taxi commuters and herein lies possibly the biggest obstacle in converting a motorist into a commuter.

The Gautrain offers commuters a safe and reliable option to glide over traffic to Gauteng’s major points but it is not affordable for everyone.

The eThekwini Municipality has plans for a similar monorail system linking Umhlanga to King Shaka International Airport.

The challenge for Peters and the various municipalities’ transport authorities is to come up with a transport system that will provide a service that is appealing to those who don’t own cars and those who want the option of leaving their cars at home.

This seems to be the only long-term solution to dealing with congestion on our roads.

• Kuben Chetty is The Witness deputy editor in Durban.

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