/ 4 October 2013

The state of SA’s public transport

The South African National Taxi Council says taxis transport approximately 15-million commuters daily.
Transport, which has previously been the largest contributor to the headline rate, increased by 11.1% year-on-year and contributed 1.6 percentage points. Photo: (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

South Africa is a country in desperate need of a viable and sustainable public transport network.

According to the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), taxis transport approximately 15-million commuters daily and this consists of 60 to 70% of the commuting public and workforce.

Yet this industry is plagued with health and safety issues and a track record of death and poor driving.

According to the South African Institute of Race Relations report released in 2012, the minibus taxi death rate was 27 deaths per 10 000 vehicles and three times higher than the nine deaths per 10 000 for motor cars. Yet they are still statistically safer than cars.

The same research pointed a finger at the fact that 59% of drivers killed in road accidents were under the influence of alcohol.

With a functioning, safe and efficient public transport network these incidents could be severely limited as the drunk public is given a choice on how to get home.

Of course this is not the only factor to consider, there are the issues of congestion, pollution and overcrowding.

"There is a lot of public transport happening, but it's fragmented and not co-ordinated," says Jack van der Merwe, chief executive of the Gautrain Management Agency.

"It is also a mode of force because many people who use public transport have no other option. It needs to become a mode of choice and the clever thing to do."

Perhaps the perception of public transport will change if there are significant developments that show a safe and reliable mode of commuting rather than a ramshackle mishmash of unreliable timetables and vehicles.

Across all metros there has been a shift towards developing sustainable and reliable infrastructures that are designed to appeal to commuters of all economic backgrounds, from Cape Town to Durban to Johannesburg, public transport is undergoing a transformation.

Rail to road
The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) merged the South African Rail Commuter Organisation, Metrorail, Intersite Property Management Services, Shosholoza Meyl and Autopax into one organisation.

The goal was to improve efficiency, innovation and accountability and reverse the decline in commuter rail services. Established in 2006, the organisation has met with criticism and been plagued with problems.

According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, in 2012 Prasa rail operations was still battling with challenges that included poor maintenance practices, a dispute with Transnet about access to its network and pricing of services and unresolved issues with companies involved in the refurbishment of coaches and the supply of key components.

However, it seems that the organisation has finally begun its long trek towards building an infrastructure that can service the needs of its passengers.

Prasa has invested R123.5-billion in a rolling stock fleet renewal programme and is expected to take delivery of the first new trains in 2015.

This is hopefully going to go a long way towards repairing an ageing system that has had more than its fair share of safety and reliability concerns.

Saki Zamxaka, the acting group chief executive of Prasa, said: "For the next three years, Prasa is spending about R30-billion on infrastructure and rolling stock improvements. This is over and above the R40-billion already committed to the fleet renewal programme over the next 10 years.

"The key programmes include station modernisation, depot modernisation, signal upgrade, upgrade of the perway, electrical and platforms infrastructure, as well as the refurbishment of the current fleet to extend its useful life while the new trains are being delivered," he said.

"New railway extensions are also considered, including the 3.5km Bridge City rail link in KwaZulu-Natal, and an 8km rail extension in the Eastern Cape. The passenger numbers have been steadily increasing over the past few years as a result of the investment in infrastructure."

Fortunately commuters are not left to rely solely on Prasa to get around.

Investment by the various metros into reliable modes of transport continues apace. In Gauteng the three biggest metros — Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane — are spending plenty of cash on providing reliable and modernised bus rapid transit (BRT) systems.

The Rea Vaya BRT has been so successful that it has inspired additional routes across Soweto and the launch of new systems in Ekurhuleni and Tshwane.

"Over the last five years in the City of Johannesburg there has been a focus on transforming public transport," says Lisa Seftel, executive director at the City of Johannesburg Transport Department.

"The biggest initiative to date is the revived BRT and on October 14 we are going to be doubling the number of buses in our system, the number of kilometres that we are travelling and the number of passengers that we intend to carry."

"There are other things we are doing in the City of Johannesburg in terms of walking and cycling and this year we are constructing two cycle lanes, one is about five kilometres and the other will be a bit longer," says Seftel.

"The first corridor will be in Soweto and the second joining the universities of Wits and Johannesburg with surrounding residential areas for students."

KwaZulu-Natal is closely following in the footsteps of Gauteng with a R20-billion spend on the public transport infrastructure that includes a reliable BRT system.

The eThekwini Integrated Rapid Public Transport Network has already started to grow with bus shelters and dedicated lanes established around the city.

This is, unfortunately, some time behind the other areas with the first phase only expected to conclude around 2018, but the goal is to create a system that is on a par with the first-world quality solutions offered by countries such as Singapore and Brazil.

In the Cape, the MyCiTi initiative has seen substantial investment and the City of Cape Town council recently approved a 12-year contract with the vehicle operating companies.

Initially launched in 2011 with a route between the Civic Centre Station and Table View, the route has plans to expand to Salt River, Oranjezicht, Tamboerskloof and along the Atlantic Seaboard in 2013.

As with all these plans, the expansion of BRT routes across the various metros and into all areas is going to take at least 15 to 20 years to complete.

The development of each phase requires that funding be available and this is dependent on other external factors.

It appears that the country is well on the way to building a really exciting infrastructure for commuters.

It's happening now
While there may be some reservations about whether or not South Africans will leave their cars at home for the commute, the success of the Gautrain has shown that many are prepared to do just that.

Seftel believes that there has been a behavioural shift on behalf of members of the public, particularly those who have traditionally been focused on cars, and that the introduction of the Gautrain has been key in this movement.

"We are fighting two forces, as people become more affluent they choose the luxury and freedom of having their own car," says van der Merwe. "You can park it where you want, start it when you want and you cannot have such flexibility in a public transport system.

"If you can offer better quality public transport then people may not select to buy cars as they have an alternative that is convenient and eco-friendly."

The Gautrain is one such public transport success story and continues to grow apace. The organisation is identifying new corridors that are a priority for consumers and making plans to meet those needs.

"We've just finished a 25-year integrated transport master plan for the province and the numbers we've come up with are scary," says van der Merwe.

"Gauteng will have 18.6-million inhabitants in 25 years, and what's more worrying is that we'll have 8.9-million workers. That's 8.9-million home-work trips and work-home trips around 24-million to 25-million passenger trips a day."

If these estimates are to be believed, then South Africa's plans to deliver robust and sustainable public transport networks by 2020 are vital.

Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg are on track with their systems and these are being rolled out to other metros accordingly.

Now it is up to the commuter to take advantage of these systems and support their growth, and to push for a future that doesn't see congested roads, bad traffic and more unnecessary road fatalities. 

This article forms part of a supplement made possible by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G’s supplements editorial team.