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February 2002


A

Investigation

INDUSTRY
BALKS AT MEC's
PROPOSAL

An inspiration by the Gauteng Department of Transport is to ban trucks from operating on highways and freeways during peak hours as part of a plan to relieve traffic congestion in the province. Andrew Parker delves deeper into the issue and finds the suggestion has been received with great consternation by the local transport fraternity, most of whom see it as being a disastrous move for the economy.

The plan, which is still in the discussion stage, would effectively ban trucks bigger than 3.5 tons GVM on freeways for two hours during morning and two hours during afternoon peak periods.

The provincial government has been discussing the idea with the Road Freight Association (RFA) for at least six months and had hoped to keep the idea a secret at least for the time being. That is until the MEC for Transport, Khabisi Mosunkutu, passed a comment during a press conference in early December.

It seems Mosunkutu inadvertently revealed some details of his grand plan during a debate on plans to unveil a comprehensive traffic congestion strategy in the early part of 2002. While decongesting the road network is certainly a noble ideal, it appears that Mosunkutu and his acolytes have not fully realised the enormous impact such a strategy as removing commercial vehicles from the roads would have on the economy.

Mosunkutu also didn't say where all the trucks should go during the rush hour. Perhaps he believes somewhat naively that they can be diverted to the poorly maintained and congested secondary roads - such as the very potholed R511 - which were never designed to carry heavy commercials in the first place.

Daan Visser, director of planning at the Gauteng Department of Transport, notes that there has not been any progress on the proposal to remove trucks from highways and freeways during peak hours.

"We have had discussions with varied interested parties to see how we could make such a plan feasible but no final decisions have been made," he tells FleetWatch. "We are also in the process of contacting a number of commercial vehicle fleet operators to see if a such a plan would be acceptable." 
Taken on a German highway in mid-afternoon by Fleetwatch editor Patrick O'Leary, we are informed that this is all in a day's work throughout Europe. Please note how the trucks remain in the slow lane leaving the other two lanes free for faster moving passenger cars. If trucks were banned on European highways - at any time of the day never mind just peak traffic periods - it would effectively cripple the economy. Please don't try it in South Africa - things are bad enough already.

No law 
Visser says it is also important to note that as it stands at the moment there is no law in the statute books to regulate such a proposal and even if such a law was promulgated, the authorities would have to have a plan to ensure it was enforced.

"At the moment, we in the Gauteng Department of Transport are working with and trying to influence the MEC to look at other, perhaps more creative and practical solutions to the problem of traffic congestion. Removing trucks from the highways and freeways enduring peak hours is just one idea."

Visser adds that it is possible that Mosunkutu's initial proposal could be moderated. "There are other ways to go about relieving congestion. For instance if overloaded and unroadworthy vehicles were taken off the road, this would be a big help."

Perhaps Mosunkutu should consider restricting trucks to the left-hand lane. However, a hilly section of the M1 highway between Pretoria and Johannesburg in the Midrand area is designated for trucks but this is mostly overlooked and ignored by truck drivers. Probably because it is normally filled with cars!

The ruling would affect approximately 5% of all vehicles on the road at peak hours. Taking the Ben Schoeman highway between Pretoria and Johannesburg as an example of the approximately 120 000 vehicles moving on the road during peak hours, this would mean about 6 000 trucks would have to get off the road.

Extrapolate these figures to every highway and freeway in Gauteng and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that if such a law is introduced, it is going to cost business millions of Rand per day.

Major disruptions
Logistically speaking it would cause major disruption to the supply chains. While some unenlightened individuals are dreaming of clear skies and even clearer highways without trucks blocking the way, they are definitely living in cloud cuckoo land. This journalist is so bold as to say such an idea has no chance of getting off the ground let along being effective. 

From a business point of view, it would mean cutting an average commercial vehicle driver's working day by 40%. What business can afford this type of disruption?

It is all very well to say goods can be delivered at night or inbetween peaks but the practicalities of getting this type of discipline into a supply chain environment are not as straightforward as some may be led to believe. And it is certainly not going to suddenly happen at the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen.

Costa Pierides, manager technical and regulatory affairs at the RFA, comments that the implications of the MEC's proposal are massive. "We (the RFA) do not want to get into an argument with Government about this issue. I personally feel we need a more logical approach to a common problem. Any solution put forward must have the best economic interests of South Africa and its people at heart. Removing trucks from highways is not the answer this country is looking for. We cannot afford haphazard decisions to be thrust upon us. I feel a more practical and workable solution can be found."

Pierides further believes that overall, the driving habits of South Africans are conducive to creating congestion: "This includes passenger and commercial vehicles. Coupled to this is a lack of law enforcement. Will the traffic authorities be able to enforce this proposal. I doubt they can. They cannot even enforce existing laws."

Foreign scenarios
Further to this, Pierides agrees that it would probably serve the economy better if commercial vehicles were restricted to the left-hand lane as is the case in some parts of Europe. Another 'foreign' scenario that bears a moment of thought is the case of the city of Atlanta in the USA.

While heavy trucks are restricted to the slow lane, passenger cars with three or more passengers (including driver) on board are allowed access to an 'express lane'. This encourages car owners to form car pools thereby reducing the total number of cars on the highways. Definitely not a panacea but it embraces a little more lateral than removing economically active vehicles from the transportation system. 

Pierides also says heavy trucks account for around 5% of all vehicles on the roads. "This means Gauteng has approximately 100 000 trucks on the roads at any one time. Hypothetically speaking, if you had to remove these from the roads for four hours a day at a cost of around R300 per hour, it would cost the Gauteng economy R1,2-billion a day."

OK, Pierides is obviously fully aware that not all the 100 000 trucks are operating on highways and freeways at the same during peak periods but one can hypothesise that a fair percentage will require access to a highway or freeway during peak morning and afternoon periods.

More scientific approach needed
South African Breweries transport manager Ted Stanton says the solution to traffic congestion requires a more positive and scientific approach.

He comments that the level of traffic policing, in his opinion, is pretty dismal. He says he has witnessed car drivers shaving, eating breakfast and reading newspapers while they are driving.

"I would like to submit a two-pronged open question to the traffic authorities: What can be done about the poor quality of passenger car drivers and how can we achieve better utilisation of the existing road infrastructure? That is just for starters.

"When it comes to commercial vehicles, I believe that a percentage of trucks on our roads are seriously under powered. According to Road Traffic Regulation 239, the power to weight ratio requirement is 240 kg/kW. This means a 56-ton load requires a truck with a minimum 233.3 kW engine. There are more than enough modern trucks providing this kind of power that are readily available. What is of concern is when a lower powered truck is overloaded, it can no longer operate efficiently in terms of the law."

FleetWatch legislative correspondent Jack Webster says more importantly than power to weight ratio is a need for commercial vehicles to maintain a minimum speed. He notes that such requirements are in force in many overseas countries.

Of course, minimum speeds change depending on the gradient of the road. However, if a truck cannot achieve a minimum speed on a specific gradient with a full load then it is obliged to take an alternative route. Such a law exists in South Africa but is rarely applied let alone policed. 
Left:
Potentially disastrous for the truck hire industry is how Kempston Truck Hire director Sue Rabie describes the proposal to ban trucks off the Gauteng highways. 


ABOVE:
Where are the trucks blocking the highway? This is the Ben Schoeman - one of the busiest highways in the country. This picture was taken around 9.00am - just after peak hour but you will see the same scenario during peak hours - hundreds of cars and few trucks.

Top Left:
"It is time to add science to the problem of traffic congestion" - ABI transport manager Ted Stanton.

Above Left:
Point taken. These trucks should be in the left hand lane. Their legal maximum speed of 80 km/h makes it difficult for cars to negotiate a safe passage without passing on the left. In a congested highway situation, it is nothing short of infuriating to the average car driver.

Disastrous for truck hire
Kempston Truck Hire director, Sue Rabie, is more than little perturbed. "I simply cannot believe the business acumen, or lack of it, emanating from the authorities. Such a move would be absolutely disastrous for the truck hire industry," she says. "I thought it was the duty of the government to encourage and promote business in this country. Ideas like this do the exact opposite. Of course there is a need to alleviate traffic congestion but to do that, we need more and better trained traffic officers and better traffic management." 

Dr Vaughn Mostert at the RAU Department of Transport Economics also believes a blanket ban on commercial vehicles operating on freeways is unworkable. He advocates the restriction of commercial vehicles into the slower left-hand lane during peak periods. In addition to this he also suggests that South Africa should move towards internationally accepted logistics practices such as night time deliveries and optimised routing and scheduling. 

"A certain amount of what could be called 'best logistics practices' is being carried out in this country but more needs to be done."

Once again, the good doctor reiterates that the real problem lies with passenger cars. "Banning trucks from the highways will not make that much of a difference. I feel there is not enough adequate traffic management on all our roads - not just the highways." 

Idea is impractical
Spar Group transport manager Ferdi Thysse says they would have to double the size of the truck fleet if trucks were banned from the highways for four hours a day. "We haul time critical perishable goods. There is no way our business could operate effectively if such a ruling came into effect."

He was supported in his views by Frikkie Rossouw, GM of Pick n' Pay's Fresh Food Division. "This would have a major impact on our business. In fact the whole idea is impractical. Most of our vehicles hit the roads at around 6.30 am and then start heading back between 3.30 and 5 pm. 

"Banning trucks from the highways will have a severe detrimental impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of our entire distribution process. In fact this would be true for any transport company. 

"If you take the long haul operators as an example, they usually hit the road between five and six in the morning. The authorities should simply spend the money and widen the freeways and upgrade the highways. We need a four-lane highway between Pretoria and Johannesburg. It is as simple as that and there is no way of getting around it."

Perhaps Rossouw is right. Before we get all excited about a bullet train which is going to take at least four years before the first train rolls into action, perhaps we should spend a few million making sure the existing infrastructure is capable of absorbing the predicted increase in traffic over the next four years.

By the time the 'Shilowa Express' is operational, the traffic will have increased by at least 20% over today's figures. If the express train removes 20% of the cars off the roads between the two cities - which is pure speculation - then the traffic problem will remain static.

Blind sight
President of the Logistics Council of South Africa, Mike Johnston, also believes the authorities are looking in the wrong place to ease traffic congestion.

"It is the huge number of passenger cars on our roads that are causing the problems, not the trucks. Coupled to this are our dreadful driving habits. Banning trucks from the highways will effectively bring the Gauteng economy to a grinding halt. 

"With no disrespect to the DoT or the MEC, they certainly have not thought this one through properly. Economics was certainly not at the forefront of their minds when they came up with this one. They simply have to look at the economic impact. What will such an idea cost and more than this, who is going to pay for it?

Johnston believes that South Africa's limited resources and capital assets need to better utilised as this is the only way this country can get out of the economic quagmire in which it is currently embroiled. 

Editor's Comment: With due respect, it's a dilly idea. Please shelve it Mr Minister. (See Editor's Comment).