If you’re driving and get the feeling you’re being watched – it’s because you are. Cape Town has its eyes on you, and everyone else travelling on 157km of the spaghetti-like freeways that crisscross the city.
In a hi-tech room in the Transport Management Centre,a R160-million custom-made building in Goodwood, is the Freeway Management System (FMS), where five operators stare at giant screens on the wall. They’re scanning for “incidents” – traffic speak for anything that jams up the freeways.
There are 236 cameras dotted along the N1, N2, R300, M5 and N7 – and more are coming. “This is where the action happens,” says a manager. I can’t name him or any of the operators, warn my chaperons – two heavyweight officials from the city council, Steven Otter and Jan Kruger.
“If their names are revealed tow trucks will harass them to alert them to accidents,” explains Kruger. There’s not much action: just operators staring at screens. Behind them is a row of people who can control traffic signals. “If we see congestion building up we tell them to give cars more green time,” says the manager.
The Transport Management Centre is Cape Town’s traffic HQ: in addition to the FMS, it houses Urban Traffic Control, the transport information centre, MyCiti, Traffic Services and Metro Police, who are on standby to respond to incidents.
FMS operates 24/7 and has instant access to all emergency services. It also informs motorists via one of the 51 electronic boards, or in traffic speak Variable Notification Signs, around Cape Town.
It’s Friday and it’s been quiet: only three incidents by 10am, two serious accidents and a bumper bashing. Fridays tend to be busier, says the manager, because people take their cars to work to get home sooner, but – in a cruel twist of fate – actually spend more time in traffic.
On a regular day, traffic starts to build at 5.30am and lasts until 10am, and then again from 3.30pm to 5.30pm. “Afternoon peak hour on a Friday starts at 1.30pm,” says the manager. “Somerset West gets hectic on a Friday afternoon.”
What he has observed, though, is that more cars on the road mean fewer accidents because there’s less opportunity to speed. He is haunted by a BMW hurtling down Hospital Bend, slamming into a car with two women inside. He watched the women burn. He recently saw a boy step in front of a bus.
He’s also seen police chasing ducks – “that can be hilarious”. He pulls up a recording of the driver of “DOUPA WP” – a taxi stopped on the freeway – who climbed onto a barrier separating the lanes, singing and dancing. It’s like Freeway Idols.
In February people called to report a “ghost bike”, a riderless motorbike, cruising down the freeway. When the operators searched the footage they saw a motorcycle hitting a pedestrian. The rider was flung off but the bike kept going, miraculously missing cars, for 2.5km.
Each operator is assigned a stretch of road for the day. An operator says working at the FMS is a bit like being a spy. “If you see a stationary car you need to zoom in to see what’s going on, but I don’t invade people’s privacy too much.” His job has caused him to drive cautiously. “You see a motorist driving along minding his own business and a speeding car’s tyre blows . and the next moment the motorist is dead. It’s hectic. I’ve seen it all. You just have to deal with it.”
When he started working at the centre four years ago he would close his eyes and see cars, like Tetris addicts seeing falling blocks after an eight-hour stretch of playing the game.
“Cars no longer invade my dreams,” he says. To relax he watches cars go round in circles. “I love Formula One,” he grins.