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Can our commute navigate climate change?

Recent research has placed Jo'burg as South Africa’s most congested city with commuters spending roughly 119 hours a year in traffic. That’s nearly five working days in traffic! If that wasted time isn’t enough to get you to ditch your wheels then maybe these environmental impacts will.

© WWF South Africa
Having flexibility in how and when I travel means I have a much better mindset when I do need to commute. Better for my health and better for our planet.

For two weeks I’ve been on an assignment to consider the possibilities of a different way of doing business. A week of navigating daily traffic woes to the office and then a week of intermittent travel to compare notes. Why? Because around 12% of South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change come from transport.
 
There are two numbers from the first week of my experiment that astound me: Over five work days, I spent about eight hours in peak traffic (equal to an entire day’s work wasted) and drove over 220km, essentially from one building to the other. Is this the best way?

A week of daily travel

For this week of travel, I used the app Waze because it allows me to choose from three potential paths. On an average morning at around 8am, these are my best odds:

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The early morning options to the office are a nightmare.

Once my path is decided, I join the toxic metallic rows of rage while singing along angrily with the frustratingly upbeat radio. I drag the happy notes so low that the heaviest Norwegian death metal band would consider recruiting me. My feelings aren’t unique. They’re probably shared with the billion other drivers on the world’s roads. I’m not exaggerating. It’s projected that by 2040 there will be two billion cars on motorways. In Gauteng, a government study predicts that peak-hour person trips will increase from 2.2 million in 2013 to 3.89 million by 2037. This will bring the average peak hour speed down to 34 km/h in 2025 and below 10 km/h in 2037. It’s going to get much, much worse.

Johannesburg is South Africa’s most congested city, according to the INRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard, which shows that commuters spend roughly 119 hours a year in traffic. 

A week of intermittent travel

For the second week I was awake before 6am and already slamming away at deadlines, knocking them out into the dark hours of the evening. Personally, I’m most productive in the morning and knowing that my manager trusts me to work remotely makes me want to put in more effort to deserve that trust.
 
Only going in for key meetings meant I could plan around traffic peak times. I was calmer, happier and more productive.
 
Did you know that private car use is the prime source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from the passenger transport sector, and the fastest growing? If we don’t rein it in, we’ll face accelerated climate change and an increase in the global average temperature that will have dire consequences for you and me and nature. Let’s take a second look at how we get from A-to-B.

© WWF South Africa
With 70% of our carbon emissions coming from cities,we need to explore better paths to reducing our impacts on climate change and the environment.

Crunching the numbers

Open Streets has analysed the way commuters get around in Cape Town and come up with some interesting findings. Although car use accounts for less than two thirds of the total passenger kilometres, it makes up over 85% of the city’s emissions. Let that sink in. In Nelson Mandela Municipality, 20% of people consume about 80% of transport energy and in Gauteng, 20% of the highest income group accounts for almost 60% of passenger transport emissions.
 
This year, we rocketed past Earth Overshoot Day on 29 July which marks the date when humanity’s demand for nature’s resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Right now we’re demanding the equivalent of 1.7 Earths and the planet is calling in this debt with nature paying the interest in the form of water and food shortages, to name a few.
 
The latest science tells us that we have to have nett zero emissions by 2050 or we’ll face average temperature hikes of 1.5 °C and over. It is going to take all of us doing everything to get there.

© WWF South Africa
Smoggy rows of traffic could be a thing of the past if we start thinking about the future.

​What has this small experiment shown?

In the hierarchy of best travel practice, walking and cycling unsurprisingly dominate the carbon-free travel options but given our country’s socio-economic and spatial reality these aren’t always possible.
 
In second place would be train, bus and minibuses in that order that travel at full occupant capacity. The key words in all of this is “safety” and “convenience” though, which remain a struggle for many of our mass transit providers.
 
Dead last is traveling by car. Keep this for special trips and weekends. But if you must drive daily, try to avoid the peak travel times and whenever possible, carpool with colleagues to cut down on your and their tally. If your work allows it, it also makes sense to negotiate to work from home when you can.
 
Our dislike of congested, smoky queues is something all of us can identify with and if something as powerful as rage can unify us, imagine what hope can do. But to get there, we need to learn how to change our view of a problem into solutions that are better for the planet, better for our pocket and better for our health.
 
I’m interested to hear what your experience has been.

Melissa du Preez Photo
Melissa du Preez, Communications Officer

Seeing and treating one another as equals can mean a world of change. For Nature and For You.

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