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23 July – Cape Town traffic worse – why?

Why was Monday 23 July 2018 so bad for traffic in Cape Town?

Several theories are circulating but beyond these was a travel behaviour shift that significantly impacts traffic twice each year – once in February, once around now. This behaviour shift predictably causes worse traffic conditions for a while.

The shift? Car-owning university students back in the classroom after a long break.

Monday 23 July was Day 1 for teaching at the University of Cape Town as the second semester started and students were forced to make their way to campus. In percentage terms of Cape Town cars on the road, the university students are not significant. The problem is that when a system is operating at a congested, unstable equilibrium, as Cape Town’s traffic system is, then it takes very little to upend the stability and cause a major disruption. The impact of this small additional throughput of student cars on an unstable system, plus other seemingly minor incidents, is disproportionately large. The overload of traffic demand in one congested area has ripple effect elsewhere.

Shifting travel behaviour amoungst the student body shouldn’t be impossible, but it would take some concerted effort from the policy-makers at UCT. Bolstering the existing Jammie shuttle service and further prioritisation of car-sharing is one possibility. Unfortunately the people who would benefit from changes in car-owning student travel behaviour (the other road users of Cape Town) are not directing the UCT access policy. And the people who are directing the access policy at UCT stand to gain little from less traffic frustration in the City as a whole.

The good news is that traffic systems have a way of finding new equilibriums…Monday 6 August is not likely to be so bad as Monday 23 July.

But the potential for disruption from unlikely sources remains.


Cartoon (c) Kirk, with permission



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