Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Take a ride where the drivers aren’t rude to you… "
BRT comes to Joburg (And then what?)

‘Have you heard of this BRT in Joburg? Are we going to get this thing in Cape Town?’ Xoliswa Mtshali is dusting my office bookshelves, moving copies of MOBILITY magazine around and looking at the photographs of TransMillenio in the latest issue. She’s spent the last week or so – like most other people in South Africa – watching news footage of the country’s first-ever BRT, Rea Vaya, which launched on 1 September. And friends of hers who live in Soweto have told her that the bus service is like nothing they’ve ever encountered before.

‘It’s cheap – not expensive like taxis. The music is not loud, they say. You can know when the bus will arrive… The bus doesn’t have to wait to be full before it goes…’

But the best, according to Xoliswa: ‘The drivers, they are not rude to you!’

As we’re talking, another ‘BRT update from Rea Vaya’ lands in my in-box. Today, talk is around emissions standards, and how the bus service will continue despite security threats. And the ruling-party ANC has criticized Soweto Taxi Services for allegedly intimidating taxi owners who support the Bus Rapid Transit system. Last week two passengers were injured by taxi gunmen, and a high-profile taxi leader was murdered.

Rather prosaically, Rea Vaya – which means ‘we are going’ in Sotho – is introduced on its website thus:

“In order to deal with the increasing transport problems faced in Joburg today, the City is pleased to introduce the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System.

“The Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) is designed to provide a high quality and affordable transport system, which is fast and safe.”

And that’s exactly what it’s doing – but the impact of this is difficult to translate to anyone who’s used to quality public transport. Transport writers, engineers and officials are flying from all over the country to take a ride on the longest-awaited bus in South Africa’s history – returning with DVD upon DVD of photographs of every tiny detail, including the pedestrian paving and signage. There’s a festive, and slightly disbelieving air to it all, astonishing to anyone for whom timetables are old hat.

Adventurous travellers to the African continent boast of taking the ‘local transport’, but to everyday commuters with a deadline, this is nothing worth writing home about: waiting three-quarters of an hour for a minibus-taxi to fill up, never knowing when a minibus will arrive, dodging gun-toting drivers who’ve been known to kill in order to maintain their routes…

Rea Vaya’s website – which offers a fraction of the information something like Transport for London’s does – is a 21st century dream for South Africans with access to the net: route planners, timetables, maps, updates, photographs of work in progress.

Phase 1A is a 25km route from Soweto into central Joburg, with 20 stations en route. The full phase 1 will include seven routes of 122 km, 150 stations, and trunk, complementary and feeder services.

Sadly, when Cape Town does finally does get its first phase of the BRT (which as yet does not have a name), the route will go nowhere near the township where Xoliswa lives. The first route will travel between Cape Town airport and the central city. There is talk that perhaps in 20 years or so, in phase who-knows-what, Cape Town’s south peninsula might find itself on the BRT route – taxi-industry-negotiations permitting.

But to Xoliswa and other hopefuls: ‘The passengers will want it. We are the ones who must decide.’



For more information, visit www.reavaya.org.za

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By Gail Jennings, Mobility Magazine, Cape Town, South Africa.
Gail writes about issues such as social and environmental justice, energy and climate change, community-based projects, non-motorised transport, and edit Mobility Magazine (a quarterly transport publication for the southern African public sector).

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