Jo'burg commuters have several transport options: the Gautrain offers comfort and speed and transports 42 000 people every day, and the bus rapid transit system (BRT), better known as Rea Vaya, which is an affordable option if travelling around the inner city or to Soweto, moves about 43 000 people daily.
But although billions in public money have been invested in these world-class public transport projects, it's the minibus taxi industry, also subsidised through the multibillion-rand taxi recapitalisation programme, that remains the most popular choice for millions of commuters, who say it is cheap, convenient and familiar.
At lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon on the platforms of the Gautrain's Rosebank Station, a handful of commuters wait for the next train to Park Station. At a Rissik Street Rea Vaya terminal, just four people are sitting waiting for the next bus.
But at the buzzing Metro Mall taxi rank at the corner of Bree and West streets, hundreds of taxis are lined up, waiting to load passengers — which takes just a few minutes —before pumping out of the rank and on to the Johannesburg streets at full capacity and high speed.
Nearing the half-way mark
Government is nearing the half-way mark in its public transport strategy, which envisions a dramatically improved transport system by 2020. Singled out as a priority in the strategy, which was launched in 2007, was the transformation of the minibus taxi industry. But six years later, progress seems to have slowed down in favour of ribbon-cutting on bigger, glitzier projects, which have not yet made South Africans more mobile in the way that taxis have.
The architecture of apartheid created a unique problem for South Africa's transport sector. Unlike in most other countries where citizens live close to city centres, the bulk of the population was settled far away from them, which is still largely the case. For this reason, the minibus taxi system developed to overcome unique transportation issues.
Waiting at a city taxi rank, Lydia Phakathi, on route to Pimville, said she preferred to use the taxis. "Taxis are faster most of the time and, for people who can't afford cars, most are using these taxis."
Mpho Gama, a law student at the University of the Witwatersrand, prefers to use the Gautrain when visiting shopping outlets in Rosebank. "It costs me 40 bucks [both ways] but it is more convenient. Otherwise, I have to go deep into the CBD [central business district, to catch a taxi] and I don't feel comfortable walking around there."
Taxi vs BRT
However, if travelling to Soweto, Gama chooses a taxi over the BRT. "It's just easier. I get dropped off where I want to be."
Mandla Nzuza lives in the inner city and tries to walk where possible but will travel by taxi when necessary. "I can't afford BRT," he said.
But Ida Mashadi, a pensioner living in Soweto, frequently uses the BRT, as it is just R1 more than a minibus taxi and is far more comfortable. "I can relax, no problem. I can even sleep."
And busy morning commutes don't bother pensioners on Rea Vaya buses, which have dedicated seats for them.
Rea Vaya markets itself as a fast, safe, reliable and affordable alternative to other modes of transport, with 143 modern buses that operate in Soweto and the inner city. It is subsidised by the city and the national treasury and, for the 2013-2014 financial year, they allocated it R216-million and R268-million respectively. According to the department of transport's budget vote, the average weekday objective is 150 000 commuters in Johannesburg by 2015-2016.
The Gautrain recently reported passenger numbers had grown to an average of 42 000 people on an average weekday, even though it remains substantially subsidised with a monthly R70- to R75-million "patronage guarantee" from the government.
Heavy state subsidies are commonplace for big public transportation projects, particularly rail, and are a worldwide practice. Some experts believe public transport projects, particularly rail infrastructure, cannot be profitable and will always require subsidies.
But Gautrain spokesperson Barbara Jensen said that the intention was that, in the future, the fare-box revenue would outstrip the operational cost. Although this would depend on the number and type of trips undertaken on the Gautrain system, it was expected to happen within the 20-year concession period of the contract.
But, in the push for world-class public transport projects, the transformation of the minibus taxi industry appears to have been neglected over time. The national taxi task team was formed in 1995 and developed a taxi recapitalisation programme with the primary aim of replacing unroadworthy taxis with reliable and safe vehicles.
But only in 2006, after R7.7-billion had been set aside for the recapitalisation programme over seven years, were taxi operators able to bring in taxis for scrapping and receive R50 000, or even more, in return.
Original timelines for scrapping targets have been shifted over the years and the project is now considered a long-term initiative and billions more have been spent since. Currently, the department estimates that 7 000 taxis are scrapped a year and, in the February budget vote, it was reported that "R32.2-million in savings was realised in 2012-2013 due to underspending on the taxi recapitalisation transfer".
The recapitalisation programme brought with it a regulatory framework to replace the radius permits system, with operating licences that had strict requirements.
Radius permits were a main source of competition over profitable routes and sometimes led to violence. The current operating licences are prescriptive in terms of routes and distinguish legal operators from illegal ones. But Nkululeko Buthelezi, the chief executive of the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), said the organisation felt the state had been deviating steadily from the public transport strategy.
"The recently found energy and focus on BRT and rail will certainly not address the core needs of public transport consumers. Minibus taxis remain the most accessible, used and frequent mode of public transport, transporting an estimated 15-million passengers daily," Buthelezi said.
One industry expert, who asked not to be named, said that, although the 2007 strategy, in principle, looked to improvements in all forms of public transport, in practice it was a platform for BRT.
"The politicians love this kind of ribbon-cutting opportunity and the planners like to see the grand design. The down-and-dirty tasks, like bringing greater order to the taxi industry, are not anything like as appealing," the expert said. "And since the planners are usually transportation engineers, they like to deal with something that you can build, like a BRT. The soft issues are irritating and, in their view, should be easily overcome."
But they have not been overcome, and growing disillusionment with government's progress has prompted Santaco to embark on a major public policy review exercise, with which it is currently busy.
Paul Browning, a public transport analyst, said it seemed reasonable to suggest that there should be a mid-term review of the public transport strategy, and of the action plan in particular.
On review, progress in the implementation of government's overarching strategic approach might have been slower than planned, he said. "It appears that the thrust of implementation in the action plan has been towards the 'second pillar' — integrated rapid public transport networks," Browning said. "It can be argued that paying inadequate attention to the 'first pillar' [improving current public transport services] has led to delays in achieving improved public transport, especially for current users."
A distinguishing characteristic of the minibus taxi industry was its spontaneity and it could change its operations very quickly to meet changes in demand, Browning said. "This spontaneity is, however, accompanied by a disinclination to adhere to the restraints imposed by transport regulatory policy, city planning (including road use), traffic safety regulations and more general legal requirements such as conditions of employment and tax returns."
Buthelezi said minibus taxis were the only answer to public transport challenges. "Rail and BRTs can only succeed if integrated with taxis, otherwise they will continue to drive up and down empty in most cases, at a huge cost to taxpayers."
Buthelezi said the taxi industry had always been amenable to development efforts and had made efforts to comply with government programmes. "As the taxi industry, we need to, of course, better our service offering and run a professional service. We need government funding and/or subsidy like all other modes of transport so that we are able to recapitalise the ageing or old taxi fleet, which will in turn provide the public with good service, safe transport, affordable, reliable and timely transport service."
He said taxi operators do not receive any form of ongoing or operational subsidy. Government spends more than R11-billion on subsidies for rail and buses to the exclusion of the taxi industry. Buthelezi said Santaco enjoyed a cordial relationship with government, but this was not bearing fruit.
He said Santaco would release a "public transport policy quarterly journal" in June, which would provide an in-depth, unbiased analysis of public transport policy and developments, and would highlight issues, contribute to policy debates and review the future outlook of public transport.
The department of transport said it remained committed to the plans and strategies it has to ensure total transformation and empowerment of those who play a role in this, the transportation, space.
"One of our contributions up to date has been the training academy located in Welkom. Working with SANTACO we aim to better the service offering from taxi operators to their clients," said departmental spokesperson, Tiyani Rikhotso. "We are currently working with our SETA [Sector Education and Training Authority] to put together a curriculum that would include customer relations management among others. We also seek to ensure that taxi drivers begin to receive training in business management that they too can aspire to run their own businesses in future."
Rikhotso said the department was also currently in the process of finalising the 'Taxi Cooperatives Model' which would be the basis for empowerment in the industry. "The cooperatives model will give expression to our objective of empowering those who sit behind the wheel all day long," he said.
He said the taxi recapitalisation programme continues to ensure the transformation of the taxi industry and said the BRT system is already yielding positive results in the municipalities that it has been implemented with regard to the empowerment of all public transport stakeholders. Rikhotso also noted that taxi associations have, and will continue to, benefit as shareholders in BRT projects – particularly where the BRT system directly affects their traditional routes.
*The department's response was not sent in time for print.