How Decent Public Transport Can Strike a Blow to Poverty

By Charlene Houston · 1 Oct 2011

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Public transport emerged out of the need for commuters to get from one place to another for social and economic reasons. Transport serves another important function too, shipping goods such as agricultural produce from one point to another. Indeed, the first train in South Africa was planned to run from Cape Town to Wellington in order to service the wine industry. 

These days, while cars dominate our roads, public transport is still critical for getting the workforce to and from work in order to avoid disruption to economic activity.

South Africa faces significant public transport challenges, as one of apartheid’s legacies is urban sprawl in our cities. This low-density spatial layout promoted racially divided living areas under apartheid with the poor living furthest from the cities. Apartheid’s road systems, which persist today, favoured use by motor vehicles. In contrast, most other cities in the world have higher densities and the road systems make allowances for buses, pedestrians and cyclists.

While transportation systems are critical to successful economic activity, they are by extension, vital to political power. 

Presently in South Africa, public transport serves to maintain the status quo in so far as the integration of former racially designated areas is difficult to achieve. 

It is difficult for those without transport to move between the townships and the suburbs or central business areas where they are likely to interact with those from other race groups or with the few who’ve moved up the economic ladder - the historically privileged, the new black middle class and so on. In addition to this predominantly racial dynamic, it is the majority of the city’s people, i.e. the poor, who are at the mercy of public transport for both their social and economic lives. 

Transport is crucial in relation to the development of any city. Just as public transport enabled the formation of an apartheid society (bus companies upheld apartheid on buses and received state subsidies to expand their routes to incorporate apartheid ‘Group Areas’), today public transport in South Africa has the potential to contribute substantially to the development of an integrated society that defies the ongoing class and race divides that continue to plague our cities. 

However, most taxis, trains and buses are scheduled to run in relation to working hours. The effect of this is that most of the poor are excluded from the social life of cities, as they are relegated to the ghettos “after hours” until they are required for work again. In this way, public transport reinforces class divisions in our society by the extent to which it enables mobility.

Bus boycotts seem no longer a feature of the South African landscape and appear to be replaced by individual action in the form of ranting on the Facebook pages of bus and rail companies.

While workers in the transport sector go on strike for better conditions and taxi owners battle each other over routes, the public has let these various service providers off the hook.

COSATU occasionally flags the disgusting services delivered by Metrorail, but there’s been no consistent attention paid to this matter by civil society organisations. Although so much depends on an effective public transport system, the nature and quality of public transport is an issue that has generally escaped the wrath of civic action.  

In addition to the important, structural role of public transport, there are various ways in which the general public can experience personal benefit from safe, reliable public transport.  

Increasingly important is a reduction in air pollution, as fuel emissions will be reduced if fewer people drive cars. This will bring health benefits as well as reduce the effects of climate change. Another benefit is the cost saving that households can make when people leave their cars at home and take a train, taxi or bus to work or school.

There’ve been some encouraging shifts in transport developments in recent years. One example is the Gautrain, notwithstanding all the controversy around the appropriateness of this project.  Although it is not affordable for the working class, it does offer middle class commuters an alternative to using their cars and thereby an opportunity to save on fuel, wear and tear and toll fee costs while carbon dioxide emissions are also reduced.

Another is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system introduced in South Africa two years ago. The BRT system is meant to be central to government’s strategy to make public transport in the cities respond better to the needs of the public, especially the poor. 

A City of Cape Town advert for its BRT bus service states:

”A quality public transport system is a feature of world class cities, offering people of all ages a better quality of life and greater access to amenities and opportunities.”

This is inspiring as the BRT saves valuable time and costs commuters less. In Johannesburg the first phase of BRT rollout was to link Soweto to the central business district.  Sadly, the City of Cape Town didn’t prioritise the townships from which thousands of workers travel to work. This would have relieved the pressure of the global recession on the city’s poor and reduced travelling time significantly.

These encouraging developments are also undermined by frequent breakdowns in services. A case in point is the two month long strike by Rea Vaya workers that led to a suspension of the BRT bus service in Johannesburg. This has impacted severely on the credibility of this service.  

However, it is the rail service that holds the dubious honour of being the most problematic mode of transport in South Africa. Crime on trains remains a problem and too often, trains are cancelled or delayed creating tension between workers and employers. 

Metrorail moves over two million people daily in various cities around the country. Recently the company said in a press statement that if passengers were delayed for an hour they would provide a bus to shuttle them to their destination. Considering that it seems to be the same trains, on the same day of the week that are cancelled, an employee is likely to get into serious trouble for coming an hour late every Friday, for example.

Cable theft notwithstanding, poor management and, in the case of Metrorail, a lack of stock maintenance must be acknowledged as central causes of a poor rail service. The result is that people with cars are less likely to be attracted to public transport, while commuters aspire to own a car so that they are no longer dependent on an unreliable and unsafe public transport system.  

Moreover, the transport service is still not aligned with land use in South Africa. People who travel long distances to work and school often use more than one mode of transport. They often spend more money on travelling than they do on food. One statistic is that 18% of South African households spend more than 20% on transport.

Clearly the cost of public transport is one of the reasons many people remain trapped by poverty.  

The recent announcement by the City of Cape Town that it wants to pursue the integration of rail and other transport, as well as rail and land use is encouraging. An important element of this vision is the rollout of the BRT system to Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain (the two largest townships in Cape Town).

Of course, the challenge is to see if the City will implement its vision. After all, we are not short of great plans in post apartheid South Africa. Too often the plans do not see the light of day for lack of leadership, poor collaboration, lack of political will or failure to manage performance.

For those people who don’t have access to cars, safe and reliable public transport is the difference between getting to work or school on time and being late. It is the elimination of the fear of falling out of the train during peak hour and the restoration of dignity to people currently squashed against each other in doorways, aisles and between carriages, because they are anxious to get to work or back home within a reasonable time.

It’s time to get the wheels turning so that the transformative potential of public transport can be unleashed.

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

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30 Sep

More Facebook Ranting?

The Facebook group "Right to Quality Public Transport" has drawn together a small number of Metrorail commuters, with a hope for building some kind of movement.... definitely still early days though.

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Rehana Moosajee
4 Oct

Changing Peoples' Lives

Transport has the ability to change the lives of millions - what is required is collective vision and focus: government, operators, labour and commuters - we could make a phenomenal difference to the lives of millions! Stop competing - start co-operating!

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