Cape Town's unfinished freeway bridge.
Cape Town’s unfinished freeway bridge. Kypros/Alamy

This week, we’re looking at unfinished infrastructure—places around the world where grand visions didn’t quite live up to their potential. Previously: the nuclear power plant in Crimea that Chernobyl stopped dead, Nikola Tesla’s giant electrical tower.

Back in the 1940s, Cape Town, South Africa, built the city’s waterfront out into the bay. From the beginning, this plan was meant to improve transportation in the city: South African Railways, which had a major station there, pushed for the expansion and an initial plan for the new land included more railway offices, as well as a 500-bedroom hotel for passengers. But as the vision for the new “Foreshore” area developed, city planners started imagining that the newly created land would include sweeping highways that would lift off over traffic in the central business district and make Cape Town a “modern city,” by mid-century standards.

By the 1960s, the city had approved a design for a new highway, and construction started on the Foreshore Freeway. By 1977, parts of the elevated highway had gone up and been paved. Then, without explanation, construction stopped. The freeway bridges were incomplete, and the spans simply… ended. Different sections in the eastern, western, and central parts of the proposed system remain disconnected from each other. And that’s been the case ever since.

Another view of the unfinished bridge.
Another view of the unfinished bridge. elyob/cropped and desaturated/CC BY-SA 2.0

In the four decades that Cape Town’s “unfinished highway” has stood downtown, locals have imagined all sorts of reasons why the bridges were never finished—hold-out landowners, engineering mishaps. But the official explanation is a simple one: Funding ran out, and it never seemed like a priority to finish the bridges. Over the years, the stubby bridges became a shelter for homeless people, until in 2013 the city cleared out the area under the bridges, built bus parking, and installed sharp stones to keep people from sleeping there.

The unfinished bridges have occasionally been put to use. They’ve been utilized as a set for TV and movie shoots, including for Fear Factor and Black Mirror, and they’ve been used for parking. During the 2010 World Cup, one unfinished bridge span became a stage for a giant vuvuzela. But for the most part they’ve just been sitting there, becoming unintentional landmarks.

In the past couple of years, the city of Cape Town has toyed with the idea of completing the bridges and sent out a request for proposals to redevelop the area, including the roadways. At the beginning of 2018, the project was moving forward, with a winning bid selection. But by the summer, those plans had fallen apart, due to concerns about the contracting process. For now, Cape Town’s unfinished bridges will remain incomplete.