Infrastructure

A Beautiful Game and Really Ugly Traffic Jams


South Africa invested in hundreds of buses and refurbished trains to ease traffic congestion during the month-long World Cup, which has attracted an influx of hundreds of thousands of global tourists. Trouble is, many middle-class South Africans rushing to soccer stadiums prefer using their cars. The result: traffic snarl-ups so massive that fans have struggled to get to their matches on time—or at all.

World Cup planners overlooked the fact that wealthier South Africans typically steer clear of poorly maintained minibus taxis and trains where they are easy targets for criminals. The 43 billion rand ($5.7 billion) the government has spent on infrastructure and security to prepare for the world's most-watched sporting event has done little to change that.

"Old habits die hard," says Tony Twine, an economist at Johannesburg-based advisory service Econometrix. "Public transport is used by poor people and is not a feature of middle-class life, whereas attendance at these games is. Persuading people to use public transport is not an idea you sell in a weekend."

The World Cup is the world's most-watched sporting event, with organizers expecting a TV audience of 500 million viewers. In the southern city of Port Elizabeth, however, at least 8,000 seats, or 20 percent of more than 39,000 sold for the June 12 match between South Korea and Greece, were empty, prompting world soccer's governing body, FIFA, to probe whether transport glitches caused fans to miss the game. The day before, the 22-mile drive from the 88,460-seat Soccer City stadium in Soweto to the wealthy neighborhood of Sandton took up to four hours following the opening match between South Africa and Mexico.

"The challenge here is the number of cars that are being brought near to the stadium," Richard Mkhondo, spokesman for the local organizing committee, told reporters on June 15. "The traffic flow and management system is being improved, but the onus is on the spectators to leave their cars at home."

South Africans may be averse to using buses because they don't trust the drivers. About 500,000 accidents occur on South Africa's roads each year, claiming the lives of more than 9,600 people, according to data published on the Transport Dept.'s website.

Some foreign fans relying on the public transportation system to get them to games say the locals need to wise up. "The logistics are very good," said Frantisek Slovak, 39, a computer salesman from Bratislava, Slovakia. "We are very surprised. We were here two years ago and nothing looked ready."

The bottom line: Middle-class South Africans' aversion to using public transport has created big traffic snarls at the World Cup.

Cohen is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Cape Town.

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