Organise For People-Centred Public Transport

By Charlene Houston · 26 Oct 2011

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October 15, 2011 was World Revolution Day – a physical manifestation of the discontent sweeping through the world at this time. South Africans joined in the protest action. October has also historically been “Transport Month” in South Africa and as the long brewing discontent increasingly spills over, I can’t resist wondering if we will see collective action emerging to champion public transport issues.

The absence of organised public reaction to the pathetic public transport service is puzzling. Responses tend to be individual, consisting of personal rants where, for example, Metrorail is sometimes referred to as “Metrofail.”

However, the experience of delays, cancelled trains, life threatening taxis and the general disconnect between taxis, buses and train services, is a collective, common experience. And, action will be more effective if led by an organised collective of commuters.

Such a group should be able to muster support from road users who want to swap their cars for a well-organised public transport system and they should start by looking first at existing legislation aimed at protecting the rights of the public, such as, the recently enacted National Consumer Protection Act (CPA).

A popular guide to the CPA states, “You have rights as a consumer. Understand them. Enforce them.”

The Act has been in effect since April 2011, but the consumers whom it seeks to empower have been slow to invoke its clauses. Two sections of the Act are worth quoting to illustrate its relevance.

Section 54 of the Act guarantees the right to demand quality service and quality service is defined as being punctual, with “timely notice” of “unavoidable delays” and where “suppliers are required to remedy any defects in the quality of services…or refund…a reasonable portion of the price paid…in the event of these being sub-standard.”

The Act also addresses the right to safe, good quality goods and services. This right is clearly established by Section 55, which states that we are “entitled” to services of “good quality, in good working order”.

The Act can certainly be applied to the dire state of public transport since it is concerned with services, not just products bought by consumers. It makes provision for people to complain and take action against service providers. It’s even an issue where workers and captains of industry can collaborate since managers are tired of workers arriving late on account of so-called, “Metrofail.” 

A piece of legislation that asserts the consumer’s entitlement to quality services, along with course for redress is half the battle won. All that is left is for commuters to get organized, channel their energies collectively, and take their individual expressions to the next level. The challenges are huge, but worth undertaking to lobby for much-needed change to our mournfully inadequate public transport system.

Like various other services, our public transport system seems to be tourist and event oriented or skewed toward servicing industrial development rather than being people-centred. Government plans and budgets focus very heavily on the improvement of infrastructure from the perspective of getting goods to and from source.

Is the reluctance to give serious attention to the quality of public transport due to a perceived lack of return on investment? This is a short-sighted view given that the Minister of Transport is often heard lamenting the high rate of road accidents. 

While he makes a valid point about the need for behaviour change, it must be acknowledged that reducing the need for motorised transport would also help. Moreover, what of the bigger picture of the integrated planning of human settlement, land use and transport planning such that medium and higher density, inner city or well located settlements reduce the need for travelling, making investment in transport more worthwhile?

Moreover, better public transport is widely accepted as a sound climate mitigation strategy. About 50% of energy used in South African cities is for transport. A reduction in motorised transport will reduce carbon emissions and very importantly related global warming. 

This highlights the significance of transversal planning in order to maximise transport’s potential as a tool for transformation, both social and environmental.  While this is a principle of government, reflected in structures that promote interdepartmental collaboration, the fruits of this approach are painfully slow in materialising.

Recently, the Head of Transport in Gauteng’s provincial government acknowledged that, notwithstanding the strides they have made such as the introduction of the Gautrain and the Rea Vaya buses, commuters still spent too much time waiting for transport and that more needs to be done to achieve integration of the system.

Poor people bear the brunt of this lack of integration and investment through transport delays. This includes the frustration of the extended travelling times it takes to cover the long distances to and from their homes on the outskirts of cities. The most vulnerable non-unionised segments of the workforce, such as domestic workers, often end up jobless as a result.

What about improving efficiency and reliability for commuters (the workers who hold up the economy) and closing the gap between the different modes of transport to provide a smooth, synchronised integration that gets people where they need to be on time, safely and with their dignity in tact? 

We also know from several research exercises that many of those travelling by car (the middle class) too would prefer to use a reliable, efficient and integrated public transport system. Many people responded positively to the transport arrangements during the hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately, things returned to normal after the event and people went back to their cars when routine bus and train services, which are woefully incapable of meeting people’s needs, were restored.

The well-established facts bear repeating: effective, efficient, integrated public transport will go a long way in making our cities more sustainable from both energy consumption and poverty alleviation perspectives in addition to making roads safer as less motorised transport will result in fewer road accidents. 

Surely, action taken by a collective representing the interests of commuters will send the same message to transport service providers as we have sent to bankers, politicians and corporations on 15 October:  the tables are turning and the commuter will be king!

Houston is an activist, storyteller and public history scholar based in Cape Town.

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