Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Op-Ed: Can Cape Town’s new mayor drive improved public transport?

Democratic Alliance (DA) councillor Dan Plato elected Executive Mayor of
Cape Town, South Africa, and has pledged to improve the state of public transport. The 48-year-old Plato replaces Helen Zille, who has taken up the position of Premier of the Western Cape after the April elections.

‘Our citizens want jobs, first and foremost,’ Plato reminded his electorate in his acceptance speech. ‘But it is not for the Cape Town local government to employ people and create jobs. We need a stable economy, and we need money to stream into Cape Town. We need to enable businesses to thrive.’

Currently, businesses are constrained by poor electricity supply, acute poverty, crime, municipal red tape – and poor public transport,’ he said. It follows, therefore, that improved public transport is one of the keys to job creation and a thriving economy – considering that only 40% of South Africans own private vehicles.

Now to a reader outside of South Africa, Plato’s pledge to improve public transport might seem an obvious pledge to make – especially ahead of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, now just under 365 days away. The developed world everywhere is focussing on improving public transport, as well as on getting more people onto bicycles or car- and ride-shares, and grappling with air quality, gridlock and cleaner fuels.

In South Africa, however, we have yet to create public-sector-led public transport (or sidewalks and bike lanes, for that matter…). Our transport needs are met (in the most loose application of the term ‘met’) either by private vehicles or by a militant, unregulated and unsafe minibus taxi industry (which moves about two-thirds of public transport passengers).

Yet South Africa’s promise to implement the first phases of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) before the World Cup have been mired in politics, between the opposition-led Cape Town and provincial/national government; and between all tiers of government and the minibus taxi industry (they believe they stand to lose their livelihood).

Cape Town thus far – to differentiate its scheme with those of other South African cities – insists on referring to an IRT (Integrated Rapid Transit) system rather than a BRT.

And instead of lobbying national treasury to have funding moved forward from 2010/11 to 2009/10 (to have a Phase 1A built for 2010), officials, we are told, have been making budget cuts instead, suggesting that a public transport system is not, in fact, a FIFA requirement… (FIFA has responded by saying that the organisation itself will transport fans and VIPs, although the mini-bus industry, of course, had hoped for that slice of the pie…).

‘The point with BRT is that it is not supposed to be glorified city bus service,’ says a frustrated national government transport official, watching the Cape Town situation unfold. ‘BRT is supposed to be a fundamental urban transformation, which creates liveable and walkable liberated zones. You will never get this with a city bus service that is shiny new vehicles and nothing else.’

‘It will be a tragedy for Cape Town to have a R4bn stadium and a R500m city bus service that calls itself a BRT....’

Plato and his team of transport officials have pledged that ‘the City will work closely with the national and provincial departments of transport to ensure the successful implementation of the IRT system,’ but Cape Town could end up with a compromised end product, or a loss of decision-making and implementation authority entirely.

The BRT system has now become a presidential and cabinet level issue. It is the first real transformative test since 1994 in the public transport sector. If South Africans do not fight for it now, we will still be fighting for it in 10 years’ time, as the challenges are not going to be solved with multi-million new freeways and minibus taxi upgrades…

By Gail Jennings, Mobility Magazine, Cape Town, South Africa

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