Sunday, 09 March 2008

Right (no, left) of way:
The error at Hospital Bend

Did you know that Cape Town’s notorious traffic bottleneck known as hospital bend is the result of an absurd engineering blunder? At least, that’s the way it goes in the land of urban legends. There are two variations on the theme, and both are usually told as “everyone who lives in Cape Town knows about it”.

Here is a classic version of the first variation, as shared with me by correspondent Simon Fishley:

I spent 7 years in the Cape and working in various regions of Cape Town. One of my biggest grumbles was about 2 traffic interchanges, the one known as Hospital Bend, where the N2 passes Groote Schuur Hospital, and the other the M5/N1 interchange. Both of these intersections have most peculiar off and on ramps where you get on or off the highways in the fast (right hand) lane.

On the M5 heading towards Milnerton, if you plan to get onto the N1 north, you will suddenly have to slam on brakes as you round a corner and find the right hand lane completely stationary with traffic queuing to take the offramp.

On the N2 coming from Newlands, you leave the highway in the right lane to get to Observatory and Groote Schuur hospital. If you want to head towards Newlands from the hospital you have to accelerate onto the highway like an F1 car leaving the pits as you join traffic in the fast lane with people flying down the hill, past the hospital, around virtually a blind corner.

I heard from several sources while I lived in Cape Town that this absurdity is due to the design of these junctions being handled by an overseas engineering firm who operate from a country where they drive on the right hand side of the road and that no-one thought to mention to said company that we in SA drive on the left hand side of the road.

For a first-hand view of the “absurdity”, a Hospital Bend webcam has allegedly been set up for public viewing, but it appears to be frozen in time during November 2006 – perhaps because someone wanted to capture a moment during which it wasn’t completely backed up. However, customers of MTN Loaded can view it live at a cost of R1 a time.

The other variation on the theme is that the engineering firm responsible for this interchange as well as for the Koeberg Interchange – another absurdity of road engineering (see map above) – was trying to save time and sweat, so they cribbed the design from an American highway design. Forgetting that the American onramps and offramps were designed for traffic that kept right instead of left.

Simon’s version reached me, coincidentally, as the City of Cape Town launched four major upgrades to its highway system, including re-engineering of Hospital Bend and the Koeberg Interchange, ahead of the 2010 World Cup. Anel Powell reported in The Cape Times 28 January 2008:

The R235-million roadworks on Hospital Bend, set to begin on Monday, are expected to cause serious delays for motorists coming into Cape Town from the southern suburbs.

Elizabeth Thompson, mayoral committee member for transport, roads and stormwater, said at least two lanes in each direction would be kept open in an attempt to keep traffic flowing. This had been stipulated in the contract awarded to Haw and Inglis... The upgrade of the N2-Settlers Way Freeway is to take 25 months, with completion set for March 2010.

The project, considered one of the most important of the city's transport-related undertakings for 2010, is to be funded by the national department of transport, the provincial government and the City of Cape Town. The province has allocated R20m.

The in-bound upgrade is to cost R155m, and the out-bound revamp R63m. The rest of the R235m is to go to project consultants.

Eddie Chinnappen, the city's executive director of transport, roads and stormwater, said the upgrade would allow drivers to select lanes before they reached Hospital Bend.

For traffic heading towards the city from the N2, three lanes converge into two on Hospital Bend.

With the improvements, there will still be three lanes, but drivers will be able to choose their lanes earlier.

The lanes coming in to Hospital Bend from the M3 are to split sooner into two independent lanes, so drivers may choose their lane well before hitting Hospital Bend. The same principles are to apply for traffic out of the city.

There will also be new bridges, a widening of the existing bridge and improvements to drainage, lighting and directional signs.

During the afternoon peak hour, more than 6 200 vehicles enter the top of Hospital Bend.

According to the final environmental impact report compiled in June, the upgrade has been on the cards since 1998... Work is also to begin on Granger Bay Boulevard and the Koeberg interchange.

Talk about an expensive mistake. But adding to the ridicule heaped on these highways and the upgrades is the fact that it has taken ten years from beginning the process to starting to fix the mess. The parallel with Eskom’s ten-year warning of power shortages has inspired many a sharp response.

On the My Digital Life blog, cyberbond writes:

Apparently the plan has been drafted in 1998 already, so now that 2010 is in sight, someone probably dusted off the old plans – lying in a backroom somewhere in archives and decided, “Oh, this might be a good idea”.

I wonder just how many other “proposals” like the one that was given from Eskom to government 10 years ago etc is laying on a shelve somewhere ready to bite us in the backside.

A delightful send-up of the thinking that led to these engineering fiascos also appeared a few weeks ago on another blog, 6000 miles from civilisation, under the title Out of the Frying Pan.

According to this variation on the theme, Koeberg Interchange was designed by one Willie van der Plooy: “a nasty, bitter individual with a hell of a temper, a drink problem and complex psychological issues including a vendetta against all forms of road transport after he failed his driving test six times in a single month. Legend has it that he hid himself away and studied long and hard to become a civil engineer, then got his own back on an unsuspecting Cape Town driving public one evening by downing 6 bottles of Klippies, popping a couple of tabs of LSD and coming up with a new design for the crossroads of the N1 and the M5.”

That fanciful version is almost kinder than the urban legends!

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1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

But Sweden changed from driving on the left to driving on the right in 1971, and I'm told the change went very smoothly.

So neither of those legends casn be true.

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