Public Transport: Will the World Cup Benefit Us?

By Glenn Ashton · 1 Jul 2010

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While World Cup public transport to and from our stadiums left many visitors nonplussed at our rather muddled effort towards providing mass transportation, it was South Africa’s first real attempt at providing a modern, mass transit system. We must build on this slightly shaky start toward modernising our public transport.

Under the apartheid regime mass transit was primarily geared toward black people in dormitory townships, while whites were provided with world-class roads to get them to work. Most of our local public transport remains an apartheid hangover. Subsidised municipal buses like Putco and City Tramways and the old segregated South African Railways commuter service were prime examples, providing transport to locations like Mitchells Plain, Atlantis, Soweto and Mamelodi.

The fact remains we had no contemporary, world-class mass transit systems in place before the World Cup arrived. Certainly the Gautrain had been proposed for a while, but the approaching tournament spurred the timely completion of a strategic section of the project. Linking this to dedicated bus lanes in the form of the Rea Vaya provided a big step forward in providing the backbone of a modern transport system to the Gauteng region.

The Gautrain was our biggest and most expensive national transport infrastructure new-build project, and also the most controversial. Now that the link between Oliver Tambo Airport and Sandton has been opened its success has been demonstrated by the fact that the Gautrain takes only 15 minutes for a ride that could take three or four times as long by car.

The Gautrain may not have a significant immediate benefit for most poor commuters but projects like this, along with enhanced ticketing systems and nodal transport inter-linkages, should benefit all commuters from all sectors of the population in the long term.

In the Western Cape, there has been extensive work on dedicated bus lanes that is starting to bear fruit. An efficient bus shuttle service has been introduced from Cape Town airport, together with a circular route around the city, providing both international and local commuters with entirely new options for getting around. Rapid transport buses for the northward urban expansion beyond Milnerton are also coming on line.

Cars transporting only one person during the daily commute cause most traffic congestion. Now that commuters are being given options, such as efficient bus services running in dedicated bus lanes and efficient rail services, we are at least starting to provide alternatives to private vehicles. 

With viable alternatives in place, people must be encouraged to give up their cars and enticed towards using efficient, safe and reliable public transport. The rising cost of oil, of running cars and of parking in overcrowded cities has spurred a global shift towards efficient state and metropolitan transit systems. 

South Africa slowly appears to be catching up to the global status quo. We need to reinforce strong disincentives for motorcar commuters. Levies on cars entering city centres has worked around the world. These can be managed through increased parking fees and other direct and indirect congestion charges.  

Making efficient and safe transport more accessible to broader sections of the population will increase its viability while reducing congestion for all commuters, rich and poor alike. Public transport is a public good, as are the roads themselves, funded by contributions from ratepayers and taxpayers across the board. The benefits must be spread more equitably.

A major reason that public transport has languished for so long is because political leadership is isolated from the daily travails of commuters as politicians have access to pooled and state supported luxury private transport. Just as leadership shy away from using public hospitals and schooling, so it equally becomes a media event when a leader of any level takes a train or bus to work. 

This must change. If we are to strive for an egalitarian society then there is no reason that leaders should not regularly ride with the people to see what can be improved, as well as to know what people are thinking. The very antithesis of public transport is the selfish psychosis of the blue light brigade, projecting a misplaced self-importance to all and sundry. If leaders are selected by popular plebiscite then surely they should harbour no fear to travel amongst us?

Many of our public transport problems are related to the poor public perception of our mass transit systems. The historical background remains relevant, with public transport still perceived as dangerous and only used by the poor. Legal action by the Rail Commuters Action Group against Metrorail has begun to render the services safer but there is yet some way to go. 

Then there are problems with long waits associated with public transport, which together with issues of crime, taxi cartels and gangsterism have not helped to change perceptions.

The taxi industry arose out of a response to the poor state-run transport options available to those dormitory townships. Taxis provided an efficient alternative, but the industry grew in an unregulated and lawless manner that impeded the transition towards a formalised system. Gangsterism, violence and sectarianism plagues not just taxis, but are endemic within society at large. Taxi drivers have become de facto arbiters of the law in some places, demonstrating their clout and the extent to which they are able to disrupt social norms. 

The chaotic nature of the taxi industry has had a direct influence on the development of integrated public transport systems. Violence from within this sector has been targeted at the Rea Vaya project in Johannesburg and the Bus Rapid Transit system in Cape Town, with killings, blockades, strikes and general lawlessness a result of the unhappiness of perceived or actual marginalisation of the taxi industry. 

The taxi industry has not yet grasped that a modern, well-managed public transport system can benefit them. The growth of larger, mainline bus and train services, moving greater numbers of people, will in turn create further opportunities for taxis as they provide feeder and other services to the transport matrix. 

Government is also at fault. They lost a great opportunity by not aligning the taxi industry with a more efficient, formalised public transport sector. This oversight is symptomatic of a non-consultative governance model, which in turn triggered a predictable backlash of reactionary intimidation and coercion.

Hopefully the growth of a more formalised, integrated public transport system will demonstrate not only the benefits of such a system to the taxi industry, but also the stability that a modern transport system brings. 

Commuter services must be shown to be efficient if they are going to provide attractive alternatives. They must be able to compete against cars and other private transport in an open market. Safe “park and ride” services, reducing waiting times as much as possible and making the time spent commuting more productive, are all important parts of a successful recipe.

Metrorail has woken up to this fact by introducing select commuter trains aimed at business people. These provide Internet access, comfortable working conditions and efficient service. They will link into other services like the Gautrain, which will significantly reduce the commuting time between Johannesburg and Pretoria while also reducing the unsustainable rush hour traffic levels on the N1. A more egalitarian outlook would help towards broadening these concepts.

The benefits of the World Cup will largely bypass those who most require assistance in our evolving state. However, improved transport links, reduced commuting time and more efficient systems can improve the productivity and life of all South Africans in the long term. An enhanced public transport system is a legacy that can stand as a reminder of the unity that hosting the World Cup brought to us as a nation.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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