Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Improving Transportation Efficiency

A couple months ago, my friend and I visited Paris.  What an expensive city!  I had envisioned a trip like “Midnight In Paris” minus the time travel: white sheets on plush beds, chandeliers, good wine.  But instead of expensive hotels we opted to stay in hostel dorm rooms to avoid paying $200+/night.

In one memorable dorm there were ten girls and one power outlet.  Not only that, but the outlet was high up on the wall only a foot beneath the ceiling.  Beside it was a sign that said, “Laptop plug.”

My friend is an electrical engineer; it would be an understatement to say that she was not impressed.  She took the bad design as a personal insult.  She said, “This is why we have codes!  To avoid stupid mistakes like this!”

At the time I thought her vexation was funny but didn’t take it too seriously.

Now, however, I completely understand where she was coming from.

Joburg’s transportation system is horrendous!  Who designed these streets?  It’s common for three lanes to merge into one.  The painted turning arrows often don’t match up with the lanes after the intersection.  For example, a right-turn only lane with continue after the intersection so it should have been a thru/right-turn lane instead.  The winding roads branch off at odd angles so it’s difficult to follow one street so a long time without accidently turning onto a different one.

But the traffic lights are what exasperate me most!  Why would you put so many lights (locally called “robots”) on a highway? 

One ZA local explained to me that Beyers Naude Drive, the road I take to jujitsu, isn’t actually a highway.  Why, then, is the speed limit 80km/h?  By the time you accelerate up to 80km/h you have to start breaking because there’s a red light ahead.

If the city planners want to leave the robots, that’s fine.  Keep all the robots!  But couldn’t they implement more effective timing?

Transportation engineers have boring jobs.  I should know.  We count traffic and design appropriate time lengths for the traffic lights.  But isn’t it nice to drive in a well-designed system?  On the main roads you should rarely have to stop if the volume capacity isn’t overloaded and everyone is going the speed limit.

Another strategy is to use sensors on the emptier side roads.  This way the lights only change when cars are actually there and the sensor is activated.

How many times have I waited at a long red light and been the only car in sight?

No wonder so many people here run reds!

Driving around this city makes me want to write a report of recommendations.  Give me a team of 5 dedicated people and access to the robot timing mechanisms and we could transform this city in a year!  We’d map the city intersection by intersection and design new traffic light times.  We’d install automatic sensors so that people can stop wasting time at unnecessary red lights.

The basic infrastructure is already built.  It just needs to be used more effectively.


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