The real reason traffic lights are always out in Joburg

Drivers in Johannesburg are no stranger to traffic lights being out, but the traffic slowdowns caused by these failures are as frustrating as ever for commuters.

The problem of traffic light outages has plagued the city for years and is attributable to a number of factors, chief among which are criminal acts and load-shedding implemented by Eskom.

These issues have become so prevalent that at the beginning of 2018, the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA)’s efforts to improve security at high-risk intersections were thwarted by criminals who killed two security guards to steal infrastructure.

The JRA is responsible for managing, constructing, planning, and maintaining roads infrastructure in the City of Johannesburg.

This task is made especially difficult by the frequent incidences of vandalism and infrastructure theft that leave traffic lights disabled or without power and motorists frustrated.

A commonly-targeted component of traffic light systems is the UPS systems which provide them with backup power in the event of a power failure or load-shedding.

This phenomenon of widespread UPS and battery theft paired with vandalism is not exclusive to Joburg, either.

Recently, the City of Cape Town announced that it has had to pay nearly R6.6 million for the replacement and installation of stolen UPS batteries and units at traffic lights.

“Sadly, vandalism and theft of these expensive and essential batteries and units is a challenge across the city and not only costs the City millions of rands to replace but affects motorists’ travel time drastically during load-shedding when traffic signals are not able to operate,” the City of Cape Town said.

Traffic light outages remain a significant problem, and the JRA remains hard-pressed to deal with the issue.

We asked the JRA about the problem of traffic light outages in South Africa and what causes this problem.

Power outages and vandalism

The JRA told MyBroadband that the primary cause of traffic light outages in Johannesburg was related to power loss.

It said that 40%-50% of traffic light outages were power-related.

When asked whether vandalism, battery theft, and other crimes often caused traffic light outages in the city, the JRA said that this was certainly the case.

“Yes, especially with regard to UPS backup power supply units and cables,” the organisation said.

It added that the incidence of cable theft was being mitigated through the use of low-content copper cables in its infrastructure.

The return of load-shedding in South Africa is also bad news for local motorists, as the JRA said that traffic lights would be affected by load-shedding from Eskom or City Power.

“All traffic signals [in the City of Johannesburg] are supplied with power by either City Power or Eskom, and therefore will be affected during load shedding,” the JRA said.

“In certain cases, UPS provide backup power for a specified duration but the batteries are vulnerable to theft.”

Commenting on the effect of the lockdown regulations on traffic light outages, the JRA said that the only impact of lockdown was less traffic on the road and therefore fewer accidents that resulted in traffic lights being knocked over.

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The real reason traffic lights are always out in Joburg