Unravelling inequality: Making public transport for all

Commuter lifestyle: Urban sprawl, an unequal spacial legacy and the often high expense of travel make the problem of how to get to and fro from work a complex one. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

Commuter lifestyle: Urban sprawl, an unequal spacial legacy and the often high expense of travel make the problem of how to get to and fro from work a complex one. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

Spatial development is a critical factor when considering how to provide and apply public transport. The smallest areas of land hold the densest populations and the largest areas of land the sparser, poorer communities.

The disparities between rich and poor are also a contributing factor to commuter lifestyles and why some live near to their workplace and some have to travel lengthy distances, catching public transport well before dawn and returning home well after dark.

The reality is that historical land management matters have come home to roost and have become a profound reflection of how much work the government and new metro leaders must do to unravel the inequalities. The wealthy are able to choose where to live, usually opting for being in suburbs closer to their area of work and usually having their own vehicles to get around.

The poorer, including those in townships and squatter camps, have to deal with not only how to get to work — particularly where there are road or rail problems — but how to factor in the expense, which can amount to as much as 20% of their total daily earnings. While predominately black communities are affected, the sedate economy has also impacted the transport requirements of the poor of all races.

Inclusive societies

“We have got to find a way to make public transport possible against a backdrop of an aged and ailing Metrorail and criticism that this is perceived as being for the poor and the Gautrain the domain of the rich,” stresses Dr Ismail Vadi, Gauteng MEC for Roads and Transport.

Vadi also questions how to remedy the centuries-old pattern of settlements that has structured South African society the way it has, saying that public transport’s contribution to a more inclusive society has to be practical around where it can drive change and effectively operate, and where it is simply not feasible.

“There are communities 30km to 40km away from economic sectors. We must ask the question of whether we can roll out a public transport system on such a wide scale,” says Vadi.

“Where there is urban sprawl versus limited land space, some areas are not suitable for public transport; however, patterns of human settlement are driven by the private sector and their [labour] needs. [The question] is how we combine densification and prevent urban sprawl, using public transport to bring people more together.”

If the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system works in conjunction with Metrorail, this could be a very powerful public transport system, explains Vadi, “and a good public transport system contributes to economic productivity, growth and social inclusion”.

Says Professor Christo Venter, associate professor at the department of civil engineering, University of Pretoria: “I think that we have advanced and planted the seed that there are other, [different] ways of doing things. It changes the way we build cities, for example, the Hatfield area, which has seen change[s] in density and the area.

“Gautrain accessibility does contribute and we see the same thing in Sandton, Rosebank and selected other stations. We see an urban environment where we can live without a car and a denser, walkable environment. This is embryonic though, and we need to work out how we can make these things happen and how we can use public transport to social benefit.”


“We have been spoiled with being able to drive to work and spoiled with [urban] sprawl,” says Jack van der Merwe, chief executive, Gautrain Management Agency and president of the UATP (African Association of Public Transport). “The biggest move now is to densification, such as where there are nine housing units per hectare, this must increase to 80 units per hectare.

“What is interesting since we built the Gautrain, [is that] it has been an eco-catalyst and after five years, we have seen such eco-impacts as the value of properies around the Gautrain stations increasing by up to 5%.”

Laverne Dimitrov, transport sector specialist with the Development Bank of Southern Africa, says: “Density plays a very important role in the provision of capital into networks or into mini-bus taxis.

Where it is lower density, it is easier to send taxis, but in higher density areas, that is where you need buses and trains.

“We have a field of dreams, but we have to work with what we have, despite austerity measures. What we need is for taxis to perform well in an integrated network. It is important that services are provided in a networked fashion, rather than just several key links.

“Scheduling or a one-ticket approach is available to us, but [is] not presently being used. We need a network of services integrated with a schedule of services — a ready-made system of seamless travel, irrespective of mode,” stresses Dimitrov.

Tackling taxis

Some commuters hate them, and many have blatantly reckless drivers, but mini-bus taxis are nevertheless a vital part of the transport system. They could also provide the link needed to combine all the ingredients of an integrated transport infrastructure, including eTicketing.

They already perform the function of providing services to and from less densely populated areas without formal public transport, as well as having inter-provincial, inter-municipal and suburban-city routes.

“Taxis were here well before any real public transport infrastructure, and the industry has grown over the past 40 years,” say Dr Ismail Vadi, Gauteng MEC for Roads and Transport. “In the seventies, taxis burst onto the scene with very little planning. They organised themselves and are now a vital part [of the overall public transport picture].

“Where we are rolling out, we are still too slow — you simply cannot roll-out a BRT system or a train in a month, but taxis can get there the following morning and if a route is viable, taxis will apply for registration of that route. They are flexible and agile. Despite their constant conflict and stiff wars, they do offer a very important service that the state cannot provide.

“The pressing question is how we bring this service into an organised system, with x kilometres covered by taxi, x kilometres by light rail and x kilometres serviced by speed rail.

“How to bring the taxis within the fold will involve a carrot-and-stick approach. They have already launched their own Wi-Fi systems at taxi ranks and have tested eTicket systems — which they have done without our support. We say it is great, but it is their initiative.”

Vadi says that with interested and affected parties coming on board, the department of transport must come up with incentives to make taxis join the greater public transport system, and then there needs to be the real enforcement of routes, the legitimisation of illegal operators, coupled with fines and impounding vehicles as necessary.

There also needs to be the pooling of technology and its resources, such as smart ticketing and combined scheduling across all forms of transport, be it taxi, bus, rail or air.

Jack van der Merwe, chief executive, Gautrain Management Agency and president of UATP, an African association of urban and regional passenger transport operators, and vice-president of UITP, the world mother body organisation for public transport, says: “The solution to public transport cannot be found without the taxis. They have to come on board.”

Laverne Dimitrov, transport sector specialist with the Development Bank of Southern Africa, says: “In a developing country, we are blessed to have [a] demand-responsive form of transport. In Europe it is highly regulated. Taxis are a response to a need where we do not have a grid-connected system.”