All aboard Rea Vaya
If there was ever a stronger case for kick-starting Rea Vaya, Jozi’s bus-rapid transit (BRT) system, it is downtown traffic on a Tuesday afternoon.
What should be a 15-minute journey, from Empire Road to Jeppe Street, takes an hour.
Crossing over Bree is a challenge in itself.
Eleven mini-bus taxis and then a bus run the red light. This behaviour continues until eventually other drivers simply give up and wait out the anarchy.
The aim of the BRT is to rejuvenate the city’s ailing transport network and, in part, address this congestion and chaos. Using designated lanes BRT vehicles will operate over 40km by June this year and by 2013 the full 330km network is expected to be functioning.
Much of the infrastructure is ready for the roll-out of phase 1A (in BRT lingo). But the most challenging task facing the BRT is incorporating taxi and bus operators into the system.
The designated BRT expressways will run on taxi and bus operator territory, causing much consternation among this largely informal and notoriously volatile sector.
While talks between Jo’burg’s taxi leaders and the city continue, the industry has not officially agreed to incorporation in the BRT. With five months to go before roll-out in June, the pressure is mounting.
The intention, according to Bob Stanway, executive director of transportation for the City of Johannesburg, is for all affected operators to be included in the BRT.
Existing and affected taxi and bus operators are to become shareholders in the companies that will eventually operate the BRT on behalf of the city. The idea is for them to form new operating companies, based on market share, which enter into long- term contracts with the city.
In phase 1A two new operating contracts are envisioned, while in phase 1B there will be seven new operating contracts, says Stanway.
The BRT has huge potential to prod the taxi industry towards formalisation, including better working conditions for those in the industry. Contracts won’t be a blank cheque and will require that operators perform according to BRT set standards, times and vehicle requirements.
But many questions remain, including the finer details of how the operators will set up new companies and finance their vehicle purchases as well as their initial company outlay.
Furthermore, national taxi structures have been at odds with government on the roll-out of BRT across major metros in the country including Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Metro.
In December last year the national taxi industry raised serious concerns about its place in proposed BRT systems and talks teetered on the brink of collapse.
While regional taxi associations had long been in discussions about BRT, industry insiders say that national taxi structures stepped into the fray only in December after realising just how close the system was to being implemented.
In a bid to keep the process on track the National Department of Transport has developed a draft framework for the inclusion of taxi operators and labour into BRT systems and other integrated rapid public transport networks (IRPTNs).
The draft document will aim to address some of the main grievances raised by the industry, including assistance in setting up new operating companies and the provision of compensation for existing vehicles operators have on their hands.
On a regional level taxi associations, particularly those in Johannesburg, have shown marked progress in coming to terms with BRT. In the case of Jo’burg the BRT steering committee has resulted in excellent strides in overcoming the history of violent confrontation that has characterised the taxi industry.
The committee includes representatives from the Top Six Taxi Association as well as representatives from the Greater Johannesburg Regional Taxi Council (GJRTC), which have a long history of mutual antagonism. Talks between the city and the local industry have been under way for two years.
“Imagine over the past two years how many times we could have gone to the streets, but the process required new discipline from [taxi] leadership,” says chairperson of the GRJTC Eric Motshwane. “The GJRTC and Top Six never even looked at each other and for the first time the taxi industry is talking as one.”
Nevertheless Motshwane is not naive about the process. “The industry has been ignored over the years. It is traditional, uncorporatised and informal and now must rush to fit into the BRT. To take that leap is causing complete chaos.”
Despite intense consultation Motshwane says the challenge of reaching all members is huge and contributes to the uncertainty and fear of taxi drivers.
Jobs are another major concern.
“The aim is to be employment neutral,” says Stanway. “All existing operators will be included in the system.”
This does not mean that every taxi driver will be driving a BRT vehicle. There will have to be a massive redeployment of staff to cover other areas of the BRT. “They are not necessarily the same jobs, but they are better quality jobs,” he argues.
In phase 1A alone 18 taxi operators and two bus operators are affected. The city, with the current operators, is undergoing a skills audit to determine how many people’s jobs are likely to be affected and what kind of reskilling will be required.
Questions have been raised about what happens to financial obligations that taxi operators may have in relation to their vehicles. Many still owe money to various financial institutions for vehicle financing and there is no clear indication of what will become of their debt once BRT is in full swing.
In Johannesburg roll-out continues unabated, with the announcement on Wednesday of a tender award to Scania to build the phase 1A bus fleet. The buses need to be ordered for Rea Vaya in time to be up and running in June. The city will foot the bill until such time as a new operating company can take ownership of the buses.
“The bottom line is we need to change,” says Motshwane. “The industry as it is doesn’t make economic sense.”
BRT systems have been put in place in developing countries with similar conditions to those in South Africa and are affordable options compared with urban rail systems.
“In built up urban areas mass transit rail systems that require tunnelling cost about $60 to $200-million a kilometre. Light rail systems such as the modern European examples go for around $20 to $50m a kilometre ,” says Ibrahim Seedat, director for public transport strategy at the Department of Transport.
“BRT systems in developing country contexts work out to around $2 to $3-million a kilometre. In general one tries to utilise existing road space, upgrade it to take BRT axle loads, do a little widening for stations and passing lanes and budget also for station precinct upgrades and improved feeder systems such as walking, bicycles and smaller buses.”
If South African cities are going to implement mass transit systems to become more sustainable, equitable and more livable then BRT is the most cost-effective and fastest option, says Seedat.
“It is also the option that creates the most room for inclusion and participation of incumbent taxi and bus operators.”