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Rediscovering the road less travelled

10 February 2014

How e-tolling is causing a routing re-think

There are many good reasons for avoiding Gauteng's freeways now that e-tolling has started. Refusal to support an unjust system which was forced upon Gauteng's residents without adequate consultation is one such reason. Another reason might be that when choosing a traffic jam, the cheapest one is the best. For years Gautengers have accepted that the quickest way between two points was by highway, and it's become part of folklore. 

And in days gone by, when the highways were upgraded timeously to keep up with congestion, it was true. But as infrastructure development took a back seat to social spending, Gauteng's highways were overlooked for capacity upgrades at a time where they were already creaking at the seams. The PWV5 and PWV9 bypasses, mooted as early as the 1980s, were shelved and when the alarm bells began to sound over increasing traffic density, it was too late. Any attempt to rebuild the highways was always going to be five to seven years behind the curve and by the time the highways were upgraded in 2012, increased traffic density had mostly gobbled up the extra capacity, and we were back to square one. This shows the folly of neglecting roads planning, especially in an area like Gauteng which contributes a fair whack of the country's GDP and taxation revenue – and which relies heavily on road transport to do so.

So, with Gauteng's traffic jams having virtually outstripped the capacity growth afforded by the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, we have no choice but to look ahead to the next upgrade. Unfortunately, that will be 20 years away, due to the time frame in which e-tolling operates. By 2034 the province will be utterly gridlocked, because getting traffic off Gauteng's highways is not quite as simple as saying “use public transport”. Public transport, if it existed now or exists in the future, is fine for commuters, but there's no public transport for goods and services. Roads are their lifeblood, and now that we have fallen behind the curve in providing for road transport capacity growth, it is almost impossible to leap ahead, especially with the government having allowed urban freight rail to wither. 

Our view as the Automobile Association is that repeated indicators suggest that e-tolling is experiencing administrative challenges adding to the already high levels of non-compliance and dissatisfaction. Coupling the compounding effect of inefficiency in other government departments like the Post Office and a less than optimal e-Natis database, this does not augur well for the future of e-tolling as it simply does not present a long-term solution to Gauteng's traffic woes.  Nevertheless, while e-tolling lasts, it will afford us a refreshing chance to realise that Gauteng's freeways are less attractive options than commonly believed.

It's educational to use Google Maps to do some comparisons. The travel times are usually quite accurate and Google Maps includes a traffic tool to give you an idea of how congested a particular route will be at a given time of day.  The preferred route from Wynberg to Strijdom Park in Randburg, for instance, is via the M1 and N1 toll road. 18 minutes. But change the route to be across town and it's 25 minutes, a difference which most people could tolerate. And during peak hour, we know from experience that the freeway is more likely to take 45 minutes while the cross-town route increases to 35.  Who would want to pay tolls to sit in traffic for ten minutes longer? Or even for the same time, for that matter?

Another example: Northcliff to Kyalami. Google prefers the N1 North toll road and says 31 minutes. But some inventive routing through town only adds eight minutes to your journey. In peak traffic, you'll probably spend an hour on either route, so why pay tolls in addition?

But now let's load the dice in favour of the toll roads and say we're going from Cresta to OR Tambo airport. The most obvious route is the N1 / N3 toll road and Google agrees, estimating 35 minutes. But what if you shift the route to use Beyers Naude, then onto the M1 South and M2, off at Joe Slovo Drive and then out through Kensington and Bruma via the R24? You've eliminated five tollgates and added just 8 minutes to your journey - and we wouldn't bet on the N1 / N3 freeway being quicker in peak time. 

Every time we tried a different route we kept coming to the same conclusion – in off-peak hours there is less case for using toll roads than one might believe. And in peak traffic, the freeway gridlock makes it a no-brainer – you need to decide whether to pay SANRAL to sit in their traffic or sit in town traffic for free? Perhaps there may be exceptions and we look forward to hearing members' experiences comparing routes. But from what we can see, the exceptions will only end up proving the rule. And the rule is that restricting access to roads by financial means is just plain wrong.

Automobile Association of South Africa (AA)
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