Inappropriate Solutions

During a recent radio debate I put it to SANRAL CEO, Nazir Alli, that the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) had not been strategically considered from the point of view of firstly maximising the efficiency of road-based public transport, rather than spending money we don’t have on new roads

I made the points that the GFIP encourages the use of private cars – contrary to all world trends – and that the law of unintended consequences means that issues of Gautrain user uptake and effectiveness at traffic reduction are far from settled, while the average person who commutes from Pretoria to Johannesburg daily is going to be fleeced around R1500 in tolls per month. In addition, at the current rate of vehicle parc growth, the reduction in overcapacity produced by the GFIP will be gone in five years and we’ll be back to square one.

That was the cue for Alli to embark on a wildly defensive rant, claiming that people like me are always critical when something is done, but never made suggestions beforehand. Really? The more than a million words I have written on transport and road safety in the last 15 years have included discussions on city-to city bus commuting as an alternative to both the Gautrain and freeway upgrades (2004 and 2005), and a muse on the Gautrain’s unknown variables (2005).

Even earlier, in 2003, I wrote on the vexed question of the lack of user friendliness and cost effectiveness of toll roads towards motorcycles, another issue on which SANRAL’s silence has been deafening. The tale is an oft repeated one: the Department of Transport (DoT) and its satellites decide on a ‘solution’ and implement it, regardless of whether it’s appropriate. High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, for instance, are a great idea in a developed country with good public transport, but the vast majority of Gauteng freeway traffic consists of private cars. The signal failure of the DoT to address the legislative road blocks surrounding lift clubs and promote intra-province public road transport means that HOV will meet the same fate as it did during its 2007 trial period: a largely empty lane, surrounded by gridlocked cars.

The idea of bus routes which originate in suburbs, traverse major routes and terminate in business areas and vice versa existed long before I first raised it. Indeed, the government is now belatedly spending R1.4 billion on exactly this kind of bus system. It’s easy for Alli to evade this issue with flippant remarks, but most of the problems we have with our roads today developed on his watch: he was chief director of roads at the DoT and a member of the SA Roads Board in the 1990s, an epoch during which the CSIR repeatedly warned of the massive deterioration of our road network. (The current road maintenance backlog now exceeds R100 billion.)

Now, as head of SANRAL, Alli is ironically tasked with rectifying a major part of the very problem his directorate and the SARB caused by their past inaction. And SANRAL expects us to pay for it via tolls? Amazing…


Rob Handfield-Jones has spent 20 years indulging his three passions: vehicles, road safety and writing. He heads up, a company which offers training in economical and safe driving.

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