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Tackling the transport challenge: Beyond investment in mass transport systems

Geoffrey Bickford, September 2014

The emphasis during transport month always seems to focus on encouraging people to get out of their cars and into public transport. This year lets shift the conversation slightly towards understanding the role that transport plays in the lives of people who already use public transport and how we can create prosperous transit-oriented lifestyles.

Nomsa is a domestic worker who lives in Orange Farm at the southernmost end of the city of Johannesburg. She lives in an RDP house with her 3 children, 2 of whom have matriculated and are unemployed. The youngest who is this year repeating matric level science, was able to gain acceptance to university to study homeopathy but her physics mark was not high enough to enable her to get a bursary. As a single mother supporting 3 adult children on the salary of a domestic worker, life is challenging, especially considering that transport costs accounts for roughly 35% of her already low income.

The vast majority of working opportunities which she has been able to access are in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, over 60km’s away. Nomsa, relies on public transport to get to work every day. In her case this means she has to use 3 different mini-bus taxis for a one way trip. For Nomsa the investment in Bus Rapid Transit system has had little impact as it does not provide service close enough to home nor does it link to her places of work. The proposed upgrade of the urban passenger rail network, which has a station in Orange Farm, holds some promise but would still require her to catch at least one other form of public transport to her places of employment (and that is before considering the passenger affordability levels of the service post the upgrades .

Besides costing Nomsa over a third of her income the fractured public transport systems ends up taking up huge amounts of her time. The opportunity cost of excessive travel time is perhaps having more time to complete her high school senior certificate, assisting her daughter with home-work or spending more quality time with her family. With an average daily travel time of around 5 hours carrying out fulfilling household reproductive, personal developmental and recreational activities is merely impossible. For Nomsa, as for many others, this has become her daily urban reality.

‘In an imminent publication to be launched by the South African Cities Network some insightful suggestions are put forward to contribute towards the creation of transit oriented cities.’

Improvements to the transport system are indeed a critical component of improving the lives of so many South Africans. However, understanding which improvements impact on who is critical. BRT investments and Metrorail upgrades will undoubtedly improve the levels of access and mobility of those people who are 1) able to afford improved services and 2) fortunate enough to either live and/or work close enough to such services. It is the spatial location of activities which are often not featured even nearly prominently enough in public transport thinking to form an effective integrated response.

For Nomsa, an opportunity to live closer to the northern suburbs would dramatically change her life. But she would have to give up her house and her land in Orange Farm which she now owns. This is very important to her. Is it possible for Nomsa to gain ownership or a secure form of tenure of more centrally located urban property, which will yield far greater long term value and lifestyle benefits than her current housing location? Should urban policy makers and urban practitioners as a collective be able to answer this question and demonstrate how this might be possible there is hope that millions more South Africans could benefit from the investment in public transport infrastructure, and ultimately improve their living experiences.

Furthermore it needs to be acknowledged that it is simply unfeasible to provide BRT and rail services to the millions of people like Nomsa, who live in RDP houses and informal settlements on the urban peripheries across South African cities. Such an expansive public transport infrastructure, servicing such low levels of population density would require huge levels of subsidy and cripple the state financially. The key is to begin building cities which support a way of life underpinned by public transport as the favourable provider of mobility.

In an imminent publication to be launched by the South African Cities Network some insightful suggestions are put forward to contribute towards the creation of transit oriented cities. Essentially the book illustrates that it will require a multifaceted approach. Calling for decision makers to more frequently use public transport themselves, to break down the compartmentalised approaches to transport financing, to move beyond integrated ticketing and think more carefully about integrated fare structures tailored to the customer, to amend zoning schemes to encourage dense development above public transport stations and to incentivise improved service of the mini-bus taxi industry through the use of technology.

The long term strategic view is that cities need to become more compact and mixed in their land use (think the grocer and hairdresser on the corner below a block of flats and opposite a transport station with a park on the opposite side). All areas should exhibit a level of mixed income so as not to ghettoise lower income earners but rather provide more opportunities for people like Nomsa and her family to live close to work and work opportunities, quality libraries, great parks, good schools, a range of shops and health care facilities. This will ensure a rich diversity of activities and build much needed social cohesion.

But such an urban transformation takes many decades, the kind of time that Nomsa might not have in her career let alone her lifetime. Her children however might begin to benefit from long term strategic thinking. In the immediate term much can be done to the existing public transport system. The point is that it needs to be understood as a system. The mini-bus taxi industry continues to be the dominant public transport carrier, even in cities where BRT systems have been implemented. Acknowledging that mass transit investment, such as BRT, has a long term and important role to play, cities need to engage more effectively with the industry than provinces have been able to do over the last 20 years. The technology incentives are a useful start to thinking of innovative ways to improve the safety and reliability of services while better integrating them into the broader public transport system. A sustained effort to prioritise the improvement of the entire public transport user experience by building towards a desirable public transport way of life is essential to improving the urban experience for so many current and future generations. And is that not the end goal? To build more resilient, sustainable and liveable urban environments which improve the quality of life for the majority of South Africans.

Geoffrey Bickford is a researcher at the South African Cities Network. The publication referred to in this artilce will be launched 18 September 2014 and will be available for download at www.sacities.net.