traffic
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  • Traffic in South Africa is starting to pick up - but congestion is still way off previous levels.
  • Even with restrictions easing, we’re driving a lot less than we did before lockdown - especially during peak times.
  • Lingering remote working policies mean rush hour traffic may not return to “normal” levels for some time.
  • Pre-pandemic South Africa saw marked year-on-year traffic increases.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider South Africa.

Rush hour congestion in the country’s major cities increased by about 21% in February this year - according to traffic congestion data released by TomTom. But recent data suggests that not only have these congestion increases been eroded - rush-hour traffic may never return to “normal”.

15% of cars unused during lockdown

South Africa is two weeks into significantly eased lockdown restrictions - you’re now free to cross provincial lines, and fill your car to its maximum capacity - but data suggests that we are still some way off the country’s baseline for traffic conditions pre-Covid-19 lockdown.

During the early stages of hard lockdown, about 15% of cars in South Africa went entirely unused, according to data collected by Tracker and analysed by Lightstone.

By May, Tracker predicted that the number of unused cars dropped to 5%, and by June, almost everyone was back behind the wheels of their cars again - at least partially.

A baseline taken in March, pre-lockdown, shows that people used their cars 22 days per month, to travel 1,647 kilometres. 

In April, this dropped to just 11 days and just 501 kilometres. 

By August, the number of days travelled per month recovered to pre-lockdown levels - but even so, South Africans are still driving 233 km less per month, with the difference likely to be found in school runs and office commutes.

Overall, Tracker’s data suggests that the distance travelled has started to recover  - but only to 90% of what used to be “normal”. During lockdown, many insurance companies took the opportunity of no or limited driving to advertise a reduction in premiums. And some, like Santam, believe that the difference in habits is here to stay. Santam has therefore introduced a distance-based rating for their clients, that was prompted by reduced driving during the pandemic, but will remain in place afterwards.

“With this feature, clients who work from home or travel less than they would normally can benefit from a discount on their motor-premium. This will be achieved by offering distance-based rating categories for vehicles, which will be based on kilometres predicted to be travelled per renewal period,” a spokesperson told Business Insider South Africa.

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Days / KM travelled per month. Source: Lightstone / Tracker

Rush hour travel down by 30 to 40%

Tracker's reported near 10% drop off in passenger vehicles on South Africa’s roads is also revealing itself in less rush-hour traffic. 

Prior to South Africa’s hard lockdown, average rush-hour congestion was increasing by as much as 21% year-on-year, according to TomTom. 

Lockdown unsurprisingly brought all rush-hour congestion to an end - but two weeks into fully relaxed travelling conditions, and permitted interprovincial travel, it’s yet to recover.

Weekday rush-hour congestion recorded in Cape Town during the last week of August was down by an average of 29% compared to 2019. Durban fared much the same, with a 30% reduction, whereas Johannesburg, at 34%, and Tshwane 37%, are still significantly quieter during morning and afternoon peaks.

This roughly correlates to Tracker's data trends, which says Johannesburg traffic has recovered by 80%, Tshwane by 84%, eThekwini by 87%, and Cape Town by 81%.

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Distance travelled compared to normal. Source: Lightstone / Tracker

Trends mirrored around the world

These traffic trends are mirrored around the world - TomTom says that during Covid-19 peaks, Milan saw an 85% drop in traffic. Similarly, traffic in Los Angeles reduced by 67%, and San Francisco by 75%.

With vehicular usage staying down in many cities around the world, some have introduced pop-up bicycle lanes and wider pavements, reimagined cities for pedestrians and cyclists, and led some to speculate that the pandemic could change the way cities view their streets.

Action like this hasn’t yet been mooted in South Africa - but the Automobile Association’s Layton Beard believes that it’s too early to tell exactly how South Africa’s road usage trends will change in the long term. Beard says the AA would rather see an increased emphasis on road safety and public transport as levels return to some kind of normality.

“More bike lanes and pedestrianised streets is something we would like to see, but you can’t unfortunately build bike lanes between Johannesburg and Pretoria, or Stellenbosch and Cape Town,” says Beard. 

For this reason Beard suggests it’s time to channel money saved from reduced road accidents into public transport.

“The cost of road accidents in South Africa is in excess of  R163 billion,” says Beard. “So if you’ve got that in the back of your head, and given the reduced traffic on our roads, and we absolutely have to pump that money into affordable and reliable public transport.”

He also suggests that patterns might permanently change - and cities will need to adapt accordingly. 

“If people aren’t returning to the office, there will still be people living locally. Yes there might not be as much traffic going on major routes like the N1 or N2, but there may be a bigger build up in local areas,” he says.

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Distance travelled compared to normal. Source: Lightstone / Tracker

Tracker claims that commercial vehicle numbers on South Africa’s roads are back to close to 100%, which means that the present reduction in traffic relates almost entirely to passenger vehicles.

This leaves the bulk of the traffic congestion reduction down to key variables, like work from home policies, an increase in online shopping, and closed schools and universities. And although Lightstone says it’s still too early to know how much the impact will be - if working from home is here to stay - as some in South Africa and abroad predict - it’s possible that rush hour patterns in South Africa may change for good.

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