Can you imagine a world in which you can travel from OR Tambo International Airport to Park Station by train, to Eastgate by bus and by taxi to walking distance from your home? Using a single ticket?
Not many people can because it's not currently available, but it will be in the foreseeable future.
The idea of "One Province, One Ticket" (a smartcard-based, integrated public transport ticketing system) is one of the eleven key projects that has been identified in the Gauteng Department of Roads and Transport's five-year transport implementation plan.
It is, in fact, not a new development – it was the subject of the department's integrated fare management framework that it started developing in April 2011. This framework sets out the infrastructure and partnerships that are required to enable such a seamless system, as well as the regulatory and governance considerations.
This framework is in draft format, but is expected to be finalised by August.
The example of the introduction of a cashless smartcard system in eThekwini is seen as an example of what can be achieved in Gauteng. The coastal metro started with a pilot project last year on the city's People Mover buses serving the inner-city bus route, which has now been expanded to include the Durban Transport buses.
Integrated fare management
The card and payment systems have been introduced by way of third-party banking and IT -providers, with 50 000 cards to be distributed to commuters at no charge to help drive adoption of the system. As is planned in Gauteng, it is envisaged that the cards will eventually be usable across all modes of public transport in and around eThekwini.
Nico McLachlan, managing director of management and development consultancy ODA, who spoke at the release of the five-year plan, said Gauteng had the ability to leapfrog developed cities in the same way the country took to cellular technology. "We must prevent ourselves from taking baby steps," he said.
The integrated fare management framework has had to assess the state of fares and the related subsidies that apply across the economic spectrum. Learners, for example, receive a 100% subsidy on dedicated, contracted transport services, passengers on subsidised commuter bus services receive a benefit upward of 50%, while minibus taxi users pay full fare.
Considering these complexities and inequalities, the first step will have to be the development of a unified fare policy that somehow achieves a balance between affordability to users, affordability of service offerings for government and profitability for operators.
Setting up an integrated system such as this is also dependent on certain back-end technical infrastructure, such as a data warehouse in which all public transport transactions can be stored, consolidated and analysed.
This infrastructure would also form part of the department's desire to set up an integrated public transport information system – this would be both outward-focused by providing commuters with transport schedules and updates, and inward-focused to provide management and analytical information.
The immediate action called for in the strategy document is for a provincial public transport integration committee to be set up to implement the plans spelled out in the fare management framework.
It can only be hoped that the ticketing system's elevation to one of the priority areas ensures that it receives the attention and resources needed to make it viable.
Pragmatic, co-operative approach is needed
The talk of a Gauteng Transport Authority to oversee, manage and implement the plans laid out in the Roads and Transport Department's five- and 25-year strategies hardly ruffled feathers when it was discussed at the release of the five-year strategy paper. But then, it has already been given the nod by the provincial cabinet, so is unlikely to face much opposition.
And it certainly does make sense to create a single body to co-ordinate and drive transport across the province. This was attempted when the Gauteng Transport Management Authority was created under former MEC Ignatius Jacobs, but it lacked support and was abandoned when the new provincial administration took office.
There is clear understanding that establishing this body is not going to be a walk in the park, and both current MEC Ismail Vadi and the chairperson of the plan's steering committee, Jack van der Merwe, were at pains to urge co-operation and buy-in.
"The actual legal mechanism [around] what the powers would be of such an authority in relation to the National Transportation Act, metropolitan municipalities and the constitutional framework still needs to be sorted out. The form, the structure, powers and functions are what we need to focus on so that we get complete consensus to support such a structure," said Vadi.
He pointed to the lengths all parties went to to ensure the establishment of the Gautrain and the eventual success it has proven to be.
"If we had started with regulatory reforms, we would never have had the Gautrain," he stated. "The technocrats and bureaucrats are going to have to drive it."
Van der Merwe added that there is no time to waste as he has been asked to get it off the ground by the end of next year. "I think we will run into trouble if we ask 'who will be the boss?'. I think the issue here is what is the role, what are the functions? We have to get agreement from our stakeholders on the appropriate arrangements and structure."
Providing outside perspective, Nico McLachlan, managing director of management and development consultancy ODA, provided his insight into the process of creating a body to manage disparate entities.
"My honest opinion is that we should not fall into the trap of having a classical form-over-function debate. When you get into institutional form and structures, there are a number of classical mistakes people make. The first is form: should it be an authority, or a committee, what should we call it? In the case of the Gauteng city region (GCR), I don't think we should get trapped in legal complexities," he said.
He added that the least complex path would be the most sensible one to get the process out of the starting blocks. "The correct entry point would be to define the case for change – and I think there is a very evident case for change here in Gauteng," he said. "We need to focus on those public transport functions that are falling through the cracks. There are things we are not attending to in the GCR simply because of a lack of institutional clarity or sensitivity about taking the next step."
The guiding principles for the transport authority set out in the five-year strategy plan include: facilitating co-governance and co-ownership of, at least, public transport; retaining legislative duties, accountability, powers and revenue models of the participating institutions, and facilitating greater equity and inter-operability in the public transport sector.
This body would also delegate the appropriate public transport powers, duties and functions across the province, while seeking to achieve economies of scale and enhance and unlock its own funding.
The coming months are going to be a true test of the department, its partners and parents in their ability to realise this ambitious vision. Gauging the determination of the main drivers behind the scheme, there appears no way back, with the final details of its structure and reach to be determined through what could be tense negotiations.
Variety of funding models proposed
The big questions around the carefully-developed transport transformation plan are: what is it going to cost, and how are we going to pay for it? As the majority of the details of the plan are still on the table for discussion, no concrete numbers or mechanisms have been decided upon. What is certain, however, is that additional funding outside of current commitments will have to be found. The Gauteng MEC for Roads and Transport, Ismail Vadi, acknowledged as much, but also put his faith in his team and its ability to find a workable solution.
A lack of funding is a situation to which the department is well accustomed. As a result, the five-year implementation plan explores a number of options, ranging from drawing on national and provincial government grants to seeking private sector investment, to user-pays mechanisms.
The first option is conditional grants from National Treasury, specifically new grants that focus on achieving critical objectives set out in the five-year plan.
Funding raised through the operation of public transport facilities, including the thorny issue of subsidies to transport operators, is also mooted for discussion. The strategy document recognises that better-aligned fares are needed. This both feeds into and is an expected function of the integrated fare management framework. This framework is likely to be adopted in the coming weeks, which will take the process one step closer to being adopted.
The private sector is naturally seen as a source of capital to realise certain of the plan's objectives. The private sector is envisaged as providing routine road maintenance, but also as partners to enter into public-private partnerships.
What is likely to be one of the plan's least popular suggestions is the application of the user-pays principle. This has recently been the subject of vocal debate around e-tolls, but in truth is not something that can be avoided.
Examples such as that of London and the impact that the congestion charge has made always come to the fore in these discussions. User-pay solutions are viable options on condition that commuters are given a reliable public transport alternative.
The options suggested in the document include e-tolling, the possibility of introducing a "balanced road user tariff": an all-encompassing fee covering vehicle licensing, a fuel levy, weigh-distance levy, congestion charges and environmental charges.
A Time, Distance and Place mechanism is proposed as the most equitable way forward, but may carry privacy concerns as it would be dependent on GPS-enabled technology.
Vadi also made it clear that the private sector had not been excluded in the development of the plans thus far, and that a separate forum would be created to involve private business in the plans.
"We don't want to go to the private sector half-baked," he said.
This presents a tremendous opportunity for organisations with the size and know-how to tackle some of the capital-intensive projects that will flow from the transformation programme.