Will it ever change?

Will it ever change?

Is South Africa’s public transport system doomed to remain inefficient forever? JACO DE KLERK reports.

According to Professor Jackie Walters, department head of transport and supply chain management at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa is falling behind in public transport reforms when compared with other nations.

“One only has to compare South Africa’s progress with that of Chile, Brazil and Argentina over the last 15 years,” he highlighted in his presentation “Driving change in Public Transport Operations” (delivered at the Transport Forum’s Special Interest Group webinar on December 3).

And I fully agree. It would seem as if nothing has changed in South Africa’s public transport industry over the past decade. To emphasise this point, I’ve foraged through the FOCUS archives and came across this gem …

“We stand before a crossroads. Yes, we can continue to merely invest in our existing road infrastructure to cater for the growing number of cars on our roads, or we can follow in the footsteps of other successful cities in the world and take a more holistic view, providing alternatives, encouraging public transport, as well as non-motorised transport such as cycling and walking, and critically, integrating our different modes of transport to form a cohesive sustainable whole.”

These were the words of Amos Masondo, the then-executive mayor of Johannesburg, at a media briefing launch of the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Starter Service on August 12, 2009. It has been 11 years, but our country is still standing before that crossroads.

Professor Walters provided a list of many of the issues that public transport still faces today:

• Major issues with safety and security;

• Ineffective law enforcement;

• Major issues with the quality of services and public transport infrastructure;

• Fragmented funding;

• Standalone ticketing systems, non-integrated network planning, non-integrated marketing;

• Poor management of the commuter rail system;

• Lack of integrated transport plans;

• Complexities related to the concurrent responsibility for public transport policy (national, provincial and local), implementation and monitoring;

• Government continues to persist in seeking modal solutions (despite its intention to seek integrated transport solutions in its numerous transportation policies and strategies);

• Lack of policy implementation, monitoring and adjustments;

• Lack of transport authorities to oversee integrated planning, coordinated funding and operations; and

• No newly contracted commuter bus services, managed and funded via the Department of Transport and provinces over the last 20 years, therefore basically strangling the industry, stripping it of its market share, and making it less responsive to user needs.

“Bus services linked to 60% of the subsidy budget operate on contracts concluded in 1997 (interim contracts) with the remainder (40% of subsidy budget) operating on tendered and negotiated contracts concluded between 1999 and 2001,” Professor Walters pointed out. “Only a few new negotiated contracts were entered into in 2017, in KwaZulu-Natal.”

He added that these extended contracts are for short durations that don’t encourage fleet renewal and long-term investments. “Public transport is facing its biggest challenge since its inception – a virtually non-existent commuter rail service, highly stressed and underfunded bus operations and a very large percentage of the travelling public dependent on an unregulated taxi industry,” he said. “The taxi industry appears to be the only winner in the terrible scenario that is now playing out in the public transport sector.”

Where to from here?

Professor Walters added that we have to protect what is left of the formal public transport sector in South Africa. “We need to at least help rescue bus companies from the financial ruin that was already evident pre-Covid-19 and now face even further collapse.”

New public transport contracts are also imperative to encourage companies to invest in the industry and improve the quality of services for the public. “These contracts should be part of integrated transport plans to begin the process of viewing public transport as an integrated and coordinated system with various travel options available to the public.”

But parts of South Africa’s public transport system may be too far gone. “Commuter rail is probably set back for at least 30 years, with all the maladministration and vandalism that it experienced. Some estimates are that it will cost R120 billion just to rebuild what has been destroyed through vandalism and theft of existing infrastructure.”

Professor Walters said that concessions to attract private sector capital for commuter rail services that also involve private sector bus companies is certainly conceivable and needs to be investigated to improve commuter rail services. “This is actually still government policy as stated in the 1996 White Paper on National Transport Policy.

“Government, across all spheres, will have to reassess its commitment and actions regarding public transport in South Africa in a very fundamental way. The significant deterioration of formal public transport and the dependence on informal transport, as the backbone of public transport in South Africa, cannot support sustainable urban development and therefore South Africa in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

“Now is the time for political will and political leadership to regenerate our seriously dilapidated public transport system and facilitate the creation of user-friendly public transport that contributes to urban development and economic growth.”

I truly hope that this call to action is heard and that I don’t have to ask “will it ever change?” in 2031 again …

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FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.
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