Friday, April 17, 2009

Transport Realities in South Africa: Slow, but maybe a start

By Gail Jennings, editor: MOBILITY

Transport planning and practice in South Africa has done little to enable people to become full citizens of our country, and access the economic and social opportunities available to us since 1994. Poor households spend between 20 and 30% of their household incomes on trying to get from A to B.

Mobility is central to our human rights, and access to economic opportunities, health care and education, friends and family, goods and services. Our mobility is still impaired by spatial segregation, under-investment in infrastructure and public transport, and the assumption that we are all current or future car-drivers. Many resources remain inaccessible to the people who need them most. In addition, rapid urbanisation and a growth in the size of the middle-class has seen more private cars on the roads, with declining air quality and increased congestion.

Yet in 2008, the transport budget was five times higher than that of 2003… What happened?




The Soccer

The long-overdue process of fixing South Africa’s public – and non-motorised – transport needed some sort of impetus, and the 2010 FIFA World Cup has provided just that. Increased mobility choices and improved motorised and non-motorised transport (NMT) infrastructure will be lasting legacy of the football tournament.

Spatial planning

South African cities – and Cape Town in particular – are recognising that transport is a ‘land-use issue’, not a ‘roads issue’ – and are talking about establishing integrated grid-based movement systems, densification, and consolidating and intensifing development on the accessibility grid.

‘We need movement systems that provide convenient and affordable access to a city’s resources and amenities for everyone,’ says Catherine Stone, Catherine Stone, Director: Spatial Planning & Urban Design, City of Cape Town.

‘A movement system must be structured to create a public transport orientated, equitable pattern of access so that all people can reach a broadly similar range of opportunities and facilities in the city.’

Non-motorised transport (NMT)

Many of the poor, and unemployed, cannot afford public transport, let alone private cars – and bicycles offer flexible, door-to-door low-cost mobility.

However, a lack of bicycle-friendly infrastructure, startlingly aggressive driver attitudes, cultural taboos, and an appalling road-safety record (as many people are killed on the roads each year as are victims of violent crime – about 18 000) deter many commuter cyclists.

Nevertheless, faced with the undisputable evidence that bicycles are a highly efficient, desirable and affordable mode of transport – and the prospect of football fans from countries that regard bicycle transport as the norm – policy makers are changing gear.

In 2008 the national government issued an NMT policy, and some provincial and local governments have done the same.

‘We want to promote modal choice’, says Ngwako Makaepea, National Department of Transport, Director: Transport Policy. ‘Bicycles are a realistic mode of transport, and they are vital for our anti-poverty strategies.’

Already, national government-sponsored initiative Shova Kalula (‘pedal easy’) provides bicycles to rural and peri-urban learners, farm workers and health workers, and cities such as Cape Town, Tshwane and George are implementing city-wide connected bicycle lanes. NMT activists in Cape Town are having some success as ‘watchdogs’ over the City’s transport planning department, conducting informal NMT audits on roads and infrastructure plans and advising on improvements.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

South Africa has looked to other developing countries for lower-cost, high-quality public transport, and has seen that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is replicable here.

BRT vehicles run along dedicated lanes, and offer commuters a safe, convenient and reliable service with a regular, all day and evening time table.

Construction of BRT stations are well underway in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, and although the systems are about far more than 2010, their first phases need to be operational by then.

‘Rea Vaya [Joburg’s BRT] is not so much a transport intervention as a quality of life intervention, says Cllr Rehana Moosajee, City of Joburg Mayoral Committee member for Transport.

There will be place for current bus operators in the system, although mini-bus taxis will be excluded from the trunk routes.

The BRT, however, hailed as the solution to many of our transport ills, is seen as the bringer of financial ruin by many in the mini-bus taxi industry. As providers of flexible, affordable, customer-driven transport for decades – when government failed to do so – many in the taxi industry regard public transport as ‘their’ territory. They’ve threatened – and implemented – strikes, violence, and ‘war’ if the BRT goes ahead.

Currently, the minibus-taxi industry moves about two-thirds of public transport passengers in South Africa, says Herrie Schalekamp, Centre for Transport Studies, UCT. ‘Consequently, interventions in the public transport market require substantial interaction with this industry if they are to succeed.’

Cape Town and Joburg have been in continuous negotiations with the taxi industry, and various memoranda of agreements have been signed…

The mini-bus taxi industry


‘However, considering this sector’s continuous opposition to change, a poor relationship between public authorities and minibus-taxi organisations, and evidence from international cases of similar interventions, the successful implementation of BRT and concurrent corporatisation of the minibus-taxi industry is not a foregone conclusion,’ notes Schalekamp ruefully.

Rail gets ready

Early 2009 saw the launch of the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (PRASA), which combines the assets and employees of the South African Rail Commuter Corporation and Metrorail, with long-distance rail and intercity bus companies (which previously fell under Transnet). PRASA will invest R25 billion over the next three years to improve its service offering and restore of rail as vital component, focusing on passengers and reducing the over-reliance on road-based transport. Also on the horizon is greater integration between buses, taxis and rail, with a single ticket system across modes and municipalities/provinces.

Already Metrorail has offered hugely successful luxury express services, from Khayelitsha and Gordon’s Bay to Cape Town, and Tshwane and Soweto to Johannesburg. While good, safe and reliable service, and clean facilities might be the norm to our readers abroad, this is a relatively new ‘concept’ to South African public transport users. The service cuts travel time by about 30%!

‘Never in the history of Soweto have commuters been treated with such dignity and respect, says Sophie Mathabane, a private clinic nurse to takes the Express in Johannesburg. For many women, safety is the deciding factor in making this modal choice.

And then there’s Gautrain…

Gautrain Rapid Rail Link – with a maximum speed of 160 km per hour – will take a mere 15 minutes to travel between OR Tambo [Johannesburg] International Airport and Sandton Station…

“Gautrain is set to change the commuting habits of residents as well as their lifestyle choices such as where to live, work and play,’ says Jack van der Merwe, CEO of the Gautrain Management Agency. ‘It’s a catalyst for a new form of urban development where existing suburbs are becoming people-friendly high-density, economic cores and inner cities are being rejuvenated.’

The Link will inckude ten stations on an 80km route, between 5-8km apart. Trains will run every 12 minutes during peak hour. Passengers can transfer easily to other modes, such as BRT, taxis and trains.

The excitement we South Africans feel about Gautrain, the various BRT routes, and bicycle lanes, is bittersweet. We long to no longer feature as one a country with the world’s worst road crash statistics. We want safe, reliable, affordable, accessible, sustainable, shared transport choices – and why shouldn’t we?

As Schalekamp puts it, transformation of public transport in this country may yet be driven not by the public sector, or policy, or minibus-taxi operators, but by public demand for improved services.

On major city landmarks and numerous websites, the countdown to the 2010 FIFA World Cup kick-off ticks by the second… But for many South Africans, that countdown represents the arrival of one of basic human rights: access.


Gail Jennings is editor of MOBILITY in Capetown, South Africa.

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