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Viable alternatives will green our roads

15 November 2011 - 02:07 By Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

At the risk of alienating some of you, here is my two cents' worth on the tolling of our roads.

Public opinion has really been stirred up by the prominent tolling projects - the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project and the Wild Coast and Cape Winelands tolls. People have many objections to these, including environmental concerns about new freeways through environmentally sensitive areas. But at the heart of the objections is the additional charge users will have to pay.

And this, in my view, is precisely why the tolls are a good thing. Tolls place the cost of the infrastructure and its maintenance directly at the feet of the people using the freeway.

More indirect forms of funding this - such as increases in the fuel levy - spread this cost over a wider group of fuel users, many of whom derive no benefit from the new infrastructure.

We are a car-obsessed society. Our cities are sprawling and designed around cars as the preferred transport. But cars are high emitters of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. They also pollute the air with toxins and carcinogenic substances. And freeway-dominated cities tend to be dispersed and dislocated, lacking in sense of community.

As we adapt to climate change, we have to move away from the one person, one car syndrome, and embrace public and non-motorised transport.

To achieve this, two things need to happen: we need viable public transport alternatives, and cycling-friendly urban infrastructure. And we need to ensure that car drivers feel the full costs of using a car, including the unseen environmental cost.

Government's flip-flopping on this issue contradicts its stated objective to tackle climate change seriously. But, for me, the bigger problem is the first part of this equation: are we doing enough to provide commuters with viable alternatives?

Our cities have made good strides with bus rapid transit systems, and the Gautrain is a great intervention in urban transport efficiency (when it is working properly). But our cities are still very unfriendly places for cyclists, and the connections between the different public transport systems don't work well.

This is where we really need our transport ministry to show some visionary leadership. Give us alternatives so that tolls and other costs of using the car can result in real changes in behaviour.