Devising An Efficient Public Transport System In South Africa

The background for this article was derived from a speech made by Wrenelle Stander (Director General: Department of Transport) to public-transport role players and stakeholders, in 2004. Subsidies, Ms Stander said, “must be viewed within the context of passenger transport funding rather than as an isolated service for poor people. Both needs and funding must be weighed against what is possible”. She conceded that making eventual choices, on this basis, might not be easy.

The status quo

Currently, minibus taxis are the dominant mode of public transport, serving 64% of the 3.8 million workers using public transport. There are, in fact, roughly 9.8 million workers who travel regularly. We can deduce, from these figures, that 6 million workers provide their own transport.

Minibus taxis currently receive no subsidies. Train services are subsidised and are used mainly in metropolitan areas, to serve roughly 24% of public-transport commuters. Subsidised bus transport services 42.5% of the public-transport commuters in rural areas.

74% of the country’s households have no private transport available to them. In rural areas, 62% of the households believe that public transport is either not available, or is
too far away for convenience. Of metropolitan households, 46% are dissatisfied with its proximity.

Public perceptions, though, may not accurately reflect true need and more detail is necessary to providing practical input. The minibus taxi industry, to a large extent, has fulfilled the needs dictated until now, and no vehicle of any sort profits by running half empty. If not even a taxi service exists there may be insufficient call for frequent public transport. A less regular, but committed service, may suit the situation.

Poor service options

Public-transport users are otherwise dissatisfied with the options they have. 48% who use taxis are unhappy with the overall service, as are 42% of the train users and 31% of those who travel by bus.
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Train dissatisfaction has been voiced, as follows:
· overcrowding, 71%;
· lack of security between home and the stations, 64%;
· lack of security on the trains, 62%, and
· unsatisfactory toilet facilities, lack of punctuality, lack of off-peak frequency and the long distances that commuters must walk between their homes and the stations (over 50%).

Dissatisfaction with bus services were categorised thus:
· a lack of facilities at bus stops (74%);
· passenger overcrowding, 54%, and
· off-peak lack of frequency, 50%.

More than 50% of taxi users were unhappy about high fares, passenger overcrowding and driver behaviour. Other concerns noted were:
· the lack of facilities at taxi ranks, 64%;
· the poor roadworthiness of taxis (59%), and
· the imminent danger of accidents (67%).

No complaints by own-transport users were included, though Minister Trevor Manuel recently made no secret of the fact that traffic congestion was seriously impacting on his ability to get to work at a reasonable hour.

Exercising restraint

Ms Stander made the point that the majority of South Africans do not have regular access to either private or public transport. She used the example of scholars to clarify this:
· scholars number 15.7 million, which means that there are over 60% more travelling regularly to educational facilities than the 9.8 million workers who also travel regularly;
· 12 million (76%) of these walk to school. 75% of these can make the two-way journey, on foot, within one-and-a-half hours, but roughly 550 000 children spend over two hours a day walking;
· 9% of school children use taxis to get to school; another 9% travel in cars, and
· 73% of white children travel to school by car, while only 3% of black children do.

While the intention, here, may have been to infer that white school children have superior facilities at their disposal, the point should, in fairness, be made that, quoting a figure for car usage but none for rail, buses and walking for white children, is misleading. Also, without taking into consideration why children use particular transport modes, a true picture does not emerge.

How far is too far to walk? No one enjoys a long walk with heavy shopping or other parcels, but door-to-door vehicular transportation may cost this nation its health. A half-hour walk, twice a day, for adults, is considered advisable and children should exercise for no less than that – two hour’s of low-impact exercise is not extreme.

During November 2004, news headlines bewailed the fact that in schools where PT and sports are not actively promoted, children are not exercising enough. Walking a reasonable distance is a healthy alternative. It is more important to ensure that those children, who walk long distances, have food in their tummies. The provision of school meals, might offer better options. The pitfall here is to avoid abetting corrupt practices, which may make dealing directly with manufacturers a better option.

Where distances take in excess of forty-five minutes (one-way) to walk, scholars would be better peddling to school than using motorised transport. The manufacture of an initial 550 000 bicycles would provide much-needed jobs, but the recipients would then need income for repairs and maintenance and might need to form cottage industries making postal and grocery deliveries in their areas, to this end.

Safety first

Would scholars be safe riding alone? If not, surely safety is the main reason that people require better public transport? Whether people live rurally or in urban situations; in townships, informal settlements or up-market suburbs; whether they walk during the day or at night, they risk the loss of possessions or their lives.

My teenage, rugby-mad son avoids walking routes and distances, in Durban, that I regularly tackled twice a day in my youth. His need to be fit is more than mine ever was. The difference? Where once it was safe to walk, it is no longer safe even to drive a car, let alone walk. When he was younger and at school in Gauteng, children were not allowed to ride to school on bikes, because too many had been hi-jacked.

Suburban, working parents with cars are more able to choose between schools than rural parents. They easily drop their children off en route to work, without significant detours. Cars that enter the city limits with only one occupant may have left home with up to five – school runs and car clubs have become part of middle-class culture and some families still boast two parents, who may work some distance apart.

But “single occupant cars” are considered “inefficient road users during peak times” whereas those who share vehicles, walk, ‘cycle or use public transport are considered more socially deserving. I don’t quibble with that, but the logic used to come to this conclusion may be incomplete and deserves, I suspect, more consideration.

Few of the 73% of white children transported by car are picked up directly after school. Many join extracurricular activities or childcare groups until their parents’ working day allows them to collect their children on their way home. For many white children, the school day runs from 6:30 until 18:30. Safety is again pertinent; few families still afford full-time assistance and children, returning to empty homes, are vulnerable.

Financial limitations
Preliminary results from the National Household Travel Survey, Ms Stander continued, indicate that: “low household incomes, even in the richer provinces, constrain the affordability of public transport services”.
· Users who do not travel daily, may need to be able to move about in search of work and to shop;
· 5.8 million households (nearly 47%, of which 3.1 million are rurally situated) run on less than R1 000 per month. Financial resources are obviously strained in these circumstances, and
· a further 2.85 million households manage on R500, or less, per month and half of these spend more than R100 of their earnings on public transport.

There are, it seems, 10.7 million workers in the country. 9.8 million workers travel to work regularly, so it must be presumed that 0.9 million workers work out of their homes, live on employer property or work on a contractual basis for short periods.

Of the 9.8 million regular travelers, 32% (roughly one-third) use cars, 39% use public transport and 23% walk. Worker transport, Ms Stander maintained, is then characterised by a mixture of “car dependency, public-transport captivity and walking dependency”. Her choice of words is interesting.

The curse of congestion

A specific problem that faces the viability of future transport systems is growing urban congestion. The number of vehicles that enters cities during working hours must be reduced – funding must be channeled into “public transport and non-motorised transport initiatives”.

Facts that appear to be entirely relevant (and thought-provoking) include:
· the increase of rural to urban migration, over the last ten years, has put undue pressure on suburban, peri-urban and inner-city facilities;
· city populations and industry have decentralised and spread, which makes the provision of efficient public transport a far more complicated issue than it was thirty years ago;
· middle-income families have had to come to terms with high levels of suburban congestion;
· income earners of all levels have had to deal with these issues independently, and
· these trends have undermined the efficiency of cities.

74% of South African households did not have access to a car in 2003 but it is difficult to agree with Ms Stander that the transport needs of middle class, urban, car-owning households were provided for, previously, and still are. Had middle-class, urban needs been adequately addressed, surely those households would never have felt the need to own a car, let alone, in some cases, become two-car families.

The middle classes very often financed their own needs in the past. There was no ultra-cheap housing available in white areas and the authorities would have made short work of tearing down shacks erected on private property – building regulations had to be adhered to. Housing subsidies did not exist, except for parliamentarians who commuted to Cape Town annually and programmes to benefit public servants.

High numbers of inner city and suburban flats were necessary for people who paid far higher rentals than those who lived in townships and subsequently could afford neither their own homes, nor transport. They lived close to schools and their jobs. Only once they could finance private transport, could they, in turn, look for better-paying jobs any distance from home.

Up-grades in living conditions usually resulted once breadwinners had vastly improved their working circumstances. It was not usual, until the ’90s, for young married couples or single people to own property. As a woman, I was granted my first bond by a bank, at the age of 38, despite the fact that I had kept two jobs for most of my adult life and was considered financially stable.

I am not, in any way, trying to suggest that white people did not live considerably easier lives than others. It is though, a fact, that the middle-class suburban areas that ‘mushroomed’, incorporate various facilities that were intended to enable people with various levels of income, to co-exist. The discipline that most facilitated this state of affairs was urban planning.

I totally agree that Apartheid policies brought about inequalities and settlement patterns for which the majority of the population still pays a social price. As Ms Stander stressed, long-distance commuting, for low-income workers, has left a legacy of spatial dislocation:
· poor people travel long distances at high cost;
· their needs have not yet been met;
· many walk in unsafe and unpleasant conditions;
· our high pedestrian death toll must be addressed, and
· a preference to locate to informal housing that is closer to schools and amenities (to reduce long-distance travel) exacerbates already untenable situations.

That Transport expects to turn all these conditions around seems to put illogical strain on the Transport systems. Lack of urban planning is as much responsible and should contribute to the effort by situating industrial and manufacturing opportunities close to low-cost housing estates. Schools and amenities would then also need to be conveniently placed, nearby.

Subsidising the needs

Bearing the legacies of Apartheid in mind, government plans must take into consideration that:
· transport infrastructure implementation should complement existing infrastructure, and use flexible and incremental technologies;
· public-transport subsidies must serve as social investments in support of economic development;
· limited funding is available to reinvest in public transport systems that promise higher costs for people who can little afford them;
· Given the rural and urban needs of a growing economy, reinvestment and the expansion of public transport systems must ensure more efficient and productive settlements, such as safe, off-peak and after-hours public transport to cater for shift workers, working students, scholars, etc., and
· the challenge is to expand social investment to benefit economic development.

During the 2004/05 financial year, subsidies amounted to roughly R4.5-billion. Road-based (mainly bus) subsidies equalled R2.1-billion and commuter rail (addressing the needs of roughly two million, mostly urban, workers with incomes around R2 000 per month) received R2.4-billion. Both must still be considered potential beneficiaries.

Controlling car use in metropolitan areas, promoting public transport in all areas and catering for the safety and infrastructure needs of the 2.26-million workers and the 12-million scholars who walk (half in rural areas) remain important to Transport’s brief.

Any proposals, Ms Stander, explained, will need to take into consideration: that public transport subsidies should enhance the access and mobility needs of all people, where commercial fares for the provision of essential services are unaffordable to its passengers; benefits awarded will need to justify the subsidy costs incurred, and that market failures would result in service providers being unable to provide essential services in a viable manner.

Groundwork approach

How much pertinent information and research was omitted from Ms Stander’s speech, is impossible to estimate, but some situations would have benefited from clarification. It is hoped that proposals will not be accepted before they are explored and discussed at more length and in conjunction with all the others received.

Taxi re-capitalisation will now exchange owners’ vehicles for R50 000. With this subsidy, owners are free to invest in the vehicle of their choice, as long as it follows the legislated, safer specifications. They may also use the money for any other purpose they choose. In sizeable organisations, owners may prefer to develop a different line of business or retire on the proceeds.

When this does happen, it should be noted that those payments will not have subsidised the taxi industry, only the scrap-metal industry. Until the process has been completed, we will have no idea how many of the new taxis will become available to fulfil the country’s needs and how many taxi drivers will still have jobs. This state of limbo may seriously impinge on other decisions.

Worker obligations

Many workers are also obliged to have their cars with them during the working day because their vehicles are part of their gross salary package, used to drive to meetings or make deliveries at the behest of the employer. The public-service subsidized car scheme illustrates: the number of subsidized cars multiplied by four between 1999 and 2002. Officials are expected to use these cars to employer advantage.

Can the government afford to ask its officials to leave their subsidized vehicles at home on a regular basis and can it justify the cost increases over the same period: from R81-million in the 1999-2000 financial year, to R213-million in 2001-02? This increased spend infers the delegation of subsidies to an elite few and possibly causes more disruption in Tshwane (Pretoria) than the taxis that have lately been given specific routes to follow in that city. Other provincial capitals must also be affected, to a lesser degree.

Were the Department to investigate the figures for people who claim their vehicle expenses for business purposes from the South African Revenue Services, it would have a good idea of how many cars must use the city road networks daily and the number of vehicles that must be accommodated daily within proximity of their jobs.

Safe bets

If safe parking facilities could be made available at safe railway stations and safe public-transport ranks, many would consider the options as long as both train- and bus-transport were also safe, affordable and their vehicles were not necessary to their jobs. At the other end of their trip, workers would need to know that they could walk safely from drop-off points to their offices (and back) with brief cases, lap-top computers and other working equipment, even after dark.

Until this is so, punishing car users without improving safety conditions, is a ‘cop-out’. For this reason, Ms Stander’s wording “car dependency, public-transport captivity and walking dependency” might read more honestly: ‘car, public-transport and walking captivity’.

In essence, those who use their own cars are saving the country a fortune in public transport costs; those who use public transport deserve safe and affordable options and those who do walk, should have better conditions in which to do it. All these reflect, to varying degrees, on crime prevention and are not wholly Transport concerns.

None of which offers any solution to the problem of inner-city congestion, but does appeal for a less punitive approach. Our public-transport systems will not be considered efficient until they encourage those who do own cars, to leave them at home. Commuters cannot make this call; it rests, instead, on the ingenuity of Transport, the tax system, urban planning and law-enforcement. It also calls for consultation and co-operation on a far greater level than has yet been implemented.

Non-motorised initiatives

Using Durban as an example: vehicles cannot feed from the inner southern suburbs to the northern ones, without going through the city. Commuters needing to travel to the other side are forced into city congestion, with no options – the M4 stops as one enters on one side and begins again on the other. Providing a viable option to avoid the city would greatly reduce congestion, but would also prove costly; definitely a non-motorised transport initiative, though.

Provision of creatively situated, decentralised taxi ranks and bus termini might also reduce congestion to an enormous extent. Train journeys into the city do not offer a destination close to either shopping, office or beach facilities and secondary public transport becomes necessary.

Bus, rail and taxi services should, perhaps, not duplicate each other, but rather run more efficiently over shorter distances. For instance, if bus services could be initiated on Johannesburg’s ring road, taxis could ferry workers throughout the suburbs – from and to every off- and on-ramp, where bus stops could be situated. Taxi services continually circling on feeder roads next to freeways and across bridges some distance apart, could reduce the need for pedestrians to run across busy traffic lanes.

In many cases, though, the necessary feeder roads still need to be built and, ten years into democracy, the past can no longer take all the blame. When an electricity sub-station in the western suburbs of Johannesburg recently caught alight and left suburbs without electricity for four days, blaming those who laid the original lines sixty years ago, was not constructive.

Sixty years ago, who could have guessed what progress and expansion would occur and how many homes, shops and industries those electricity facilities, would be expected to service? It seems clear that each municipality will need an individual plan to service its immediate industrial, business and shopping areas.

Transport subsidies also cannot be expected to improve the lifestyles of those who live below the breadline, in any noticeable manner. What those people most need, are jobs and increased incomes. Let us deal with the realities, to the very best of our ability.