TRAFFIC congestion in SA’s three major cities — Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban —could hamper economic growth if no preventive measures are taken now, says the national transport department.

Transport Minister Jeff Radebe says that the use of private cars has become a major problem. Traffic volumes are growing at more than 7% a year, mainly because of a huge increase in the use of private cars to commute to and from work.

Between 1997 and 2004 the national percentage of people who used cars rose from 30% to 45%. In Gauteng, the figure was 55%.

Transport analysts say South Africans spend more than R200bn a year on private vehicles — about 15% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Although no formal study has been conducted on the monetary cost of congestion to the economy, the government and analysts say it is huge.

“Increasing congestion makes it impossible to sustain the economic growth of a city like Johannesburg on the basis of private car use,” Radebe said recently. “The future prosperity of the country depends on increased investment in public transport,” the minister said.

He said the effect of traffic jams also led to road rage and low productivity at work, and also cut into people’ s leisure and family time.

In a bid to combat congestion, the government has initiated a number of interventions, which include creating dedicated lanes for vehicles carrying more than three occupants.

The transport department has also encouraged people, including cabinet ministers and CEOs of parastatals, to use public transport, bicycles and motorbikes.

As far back as 2005, Radebe told the National Assembly that SA’s main challenge was “not so much car ownership, but car use”.

“We want our cities designed around efficient use of transport modes and these range from walking to public transport, including dedicated road space for public transport and infrastructure and facilities for pedestrians and cyclists,” he said.

Plans are under way to integrate the public transport system — a move that the government says will “radically transform” the way millions of people commute and will put the country’s public transport on a par with developed countries.

The department’s ambitious plan involves the integration of rail, buses, minibus taxis, metered taxis and long-distance intercity services ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

The reshaping of the public transport system will bring a number of changes, including the extension of operating hours to between 16 and 24 hours a day, having buses and trains arriving every five to 10 minutes during peak hours, and creating efficient feeder services including park-and-ride and taxi networks.

In Johannesburg, the new transport master plan involves integrating the timetables of municipal bus service provider Metrobus, commuter rail service provider Metrorail, and the high-speed Gautrain.

“We have begun to take necessary and real steps to build a lasting legacy in transport, not just for 2010 but for the benefit of our society beyond 2010,” the minister says.

“This reflects our collective effort as a nation to transform our public transport system to a more efficient and sustainable medium that supports growth and equitable access to opportunities and development.”

At least 12 cities and six districts are expected to be fully compliant with the new public transport plan within three years.

The treasury has already allocated R22,2bn to upgrade road and rail infrastructure in the nine cities that will be hosting the 2010 soccer.

The treasury also acknowledges in its budget review document that the soccer extravaganza has created an opportunity for SA to improve its public transport infrastructure.

“Hosting the World Cup provides an opportunity to reduce infrastructure investment backlogs in metropolitan areas and municipalities,” the treasury says.

“These investments will target a range of projects — from improving sports facilities to building roads and public transport networks — and serve as a catalyst for tourism promotion, sports development and voluntary community participation.”

The treasury says infrastructure investment will continue to make up a “steadily increasing share of general government expenditure” during the next few years. “Investment in infrastructure will lead to rapid economic growth and alleviate the traffic congestion which is a major concern in all our cities.”

Associated Press reports that a recent study by the Texas Traffic Institute has found that most US drivers waste nearly an entire work week each year sitting in traffic on the way to and from their jobs.

The report said that the nation’s drivers languished in traffic delays for 4,2-billion hours in 2005, or 38 hours a driver. The number was up from 4-billion previously. It said drivers wasted 2,9-billion gallons of fuel while sitting in traffic, and that lost time and traffic delays cost the country $78,2bn.

“Things are bad and they’re getting worse,” Alan Pisarski, a transportation expert was quoted as saying.

“We’ve used up the capacity that had been bequeathed to us by a previous generation, and we haven’t replaced it.”