Coming to a pole near you?

Coming to a pole near you?

This is the 50th Hopping Off column and I remain humbly aware that I have repeated myself several times by now. So, forgive me if I, once again, question the value of October Transport Month (OTM) and highlight the shortcomings of public transport in South Africa.

I have no idea how the people who organise the meaningless OTM activities manage to convince themselves that they are doing something worthwhile. My abiding memory of this past OTM is a picture of Ismail Vadi, MEC for transport in Gauteng, looking bemused as a youngster recited poetry.

In early October, the South African Institute of Civil Engineers (SAICE) released its annual report card on the condition of the country’s public infrastructure. There were ten categories, four of them transport-related – rail, roads, airports and ports. Top marks went to transport infrastructure – an A rating for the Gautrain, closely followed by a B+ each for Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) and heavy-haul rail freight.

As for the rest, the picture is, unsurprisingly, dismal. While the A for the Gautrain is probably justified, it is just as meaningless as bad poetry if the asset is underperforming and is playing a limited role in the overall improvement of public transport.

High-quality transport assets are fine, but poor operational management undermines their usefulness.

Although the motor car has been one of the most sought-after possessions worldwide for over 100 years, the laws of geometry are slowly kicking in – the demand for road space outstrips supply in most major cities.

The SAICE scorecard couldn’t be expected to include the quality of public transport management, but, if it did, an F- would be appropriate. Bad public transport is putting more pressure on road networks, which would otherwise be capable of handling more traffic. This is undermining the economy, not promoting it. Don’t expect SAICE to point this out! Another story that emerged in October was that the City of Cape Town is now (reluctantly?) considering taking over its local dysfunctional railway operation. That’s going to be quite a tall order, since, for over 150 years, the city has prided itself on having a “private” operator to run its bus service. The result is that there is no institutional knowledge of how to make different operators fit together.

That applies to all large South African cities where, when it comes to integrating public transport, a mental vacuum has been created by years of neglect. Johannesburg, eThekwini, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Ekurhuleni are all culprits, and there’s no evidence yet that coalition councils are making any difference.

It’s nearly time for New Year’s resolutions. Here’s a little ditty that might get a mention at next year’s OTM: If half of the nation walked up to the station each day and made use of the train, They’d help solve the question of smog and congestion and all become fitter again… Will 2018 be the year when a Bus Stop sign comes to a pole near you? Unless you are the nimby type, it’s time to start thinking about it…


Vaughan Mostert lectured on public transport issues at the University of Johannesburg for nearly thirty years. Through Hopping Off, Mostert leaves readers with some parting food for thought as he continues his push for change in the local public transport industry.

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