Mobility: South Africans have to find local solutions to solve congestion problems

Mobility is a hot topic in local innovation, and solutions will need to be as varied as the challenges. If you’ve lived in any of South Africa’s major cities, it’s easy to understand why mobility is something that’s on everyone’s minds. Train delays affect rail commuters, traffic affects bus passengers, taxi users and the fortunate few travelling by private vehicle. The knock-on effects are felt by all: congestion’s drain on productivity costs the economy an estimated R3-billion each year, and it’s also a drain on mental and physical wellbeing.

At this year’s Innovation Summit, numerous panels tackled the issue from various angles. Cities of the Future was a discussion centred around the ways in which city planners can get smarter, and how data can be used to inform decision-making for cities and take the guesswork out of predicting citizens’ needs and preferences.

In another discussion focusing on The Future of Mobility, Yolisa Kani, head of public policy at Uber South Africa, spoke with Victor Radebe, executive director at Mobility Centre for Africa. Allowing the audience to lead much of the conversation, the two were able to provide fresh perspectives on transport problems in South African cities.

Shedding light on the minibus taxi industry’s integral role in the local transport ecosystem, the discussion raised a few often-forgotten facts: that other public transport systems rely on minibus taxis to get drivers and other support workers to their jobs each day, and that travel by modes of transport such as the Gautrain, which serve few areas compared to the minibus taxis’ vast network, is usually subsidised.

If there’s one industry that can bring this country to its knees, Radebe said, it’s the minibus taxi industry, and Kani used this point to illustrate what she believes to be an inviolable fact: that the only entity likely to disrupt the taxi industry in the future is the taxi industry itself. The government would be advised to work with minibus taxi owners rather than against them, because this largely informal public transport system has come to underpin much of the country’s economy.

Mobility, then, is relevant topic in South Africa’s context not just because it’s a matter of urgency, but also because it provides an ideal example of how innovation needs to be holistic — technological advancements can’t work in isolation to solve the problems of a complex ecosystem. If we’re able to create digital products or services locally and use technology to gather information that’s unique to the location in which it’s used, we’ll avoid the pitfalls of importing a system from a vastly different context and economy and expecting it to work locally in exactly the same way.

After all, it’s not just that South African public transport that is inefficient: the journeys are too long, thanks to apartheid spatial planning that intentionally placed townships far from places of employment. City planning that allows for inclusivity and fair use of available land to accommodate lower-income workers closer to their places of employment would lessen congestion by removing the need for the number of the long journeys undertaken daily. While the idea of developing mixed-income housing in the city’s “good” areas is sometimes treated as a symbolic gesture to redress the wrongdoing of apartheid’s forced removals, it serves an undeniable, practical purpose: easing pressure on cities’ transport systems.

For those far from their place of work, whether unavoidably or by choice, alternative solutions to the conventional commute should be sought. “If you can get the job done from a remote location, why not?” asked Kani. “If we can get the idea of working nine-to-five out of our heads, how much of the congestion problem can we solve?” Working remotely tends to be thought of as a uniquely first-world behaviour, but once the high cost of data in South Africa is addressed, it could be an ideal remedy to local challenges.

Reducing the number of journeys that take place daily is a challenge for even the most innovative thinker, given that it needs to be approached differently for every kind of commuter. Returning to the issue of the taxi industry, Kani reminded the audience that being anti-taxi would help no-one; she encouraged the audience to imagine a situation where each of the 15-million daily minibus taxi passenger acquired their own vehicle, causing traffic to swell accordingly.

Ride-sharing is a good thing for the transport system, but it’s not easy to convince someone to give public transport a try when they’re used to driving to work in the relative comfort of their own car. Would this change if public transport was more efficient? If it was more comfortable? If using public transport became a business asset rather than a liability?

Innovations are underway from grassroots startups and industry leaders alike. Kani brought along a video produced by Uber that had the tagline “Closer than you think”, with a beautifully filmed narrative of a woman commuting by Uber chopper over city traffic. A project called HopOn was showcased at the Social Innovation Summit; its mission is to provide safe, short-distance transportation across university campuses with minimal fuel emissions.

When an issue affects all sectors of society, innovative solutions can — and should — come from anyone willing to take on the challenge. 

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Cayleigh Bright
Cayleigh Bright
Journalist, author, copywriter. Full-time freelance.

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