GO!DURBAN … but where to?

GO!DURBAN … but where to?

A relative latecomer to the South African “mega-transport-projects league”, Durban has a long way to go before it operates optimally.

At least one important lesson should have been learned from Gauteng’s e-toll debacle by now – mega-transport projects routinely fail to achieve their objectives. So, let’s take a look at Durban, a latecomer to the mega-projects league. Perhaps it has been weighing its options carefully to see how bus rapid transit (BRT), the Gautrain, and the Freeway Improvement Programme have shaped up.

Now it’s ready to take the plunge with a R22 billion scheme, called Go!Durban, intended to “fully integrate trains, buses and taxis across the city … complete with train stations, bus shelters, dedicated lanes and pedestrian walkways on feeder routes”.

There have been objections from various quarters, not only to Go!Durban, but also to the e-tolling of some of KwaZulu-Natal’s roads – the Business Day of May 26 quotes one objector as saying “we don’t want to see a repeat of the shenanigans that happened in Gauteng”.

Well, expect shenanigans. Durban has learned well from Gauteng – the municipality has set up a legal ring of steel to protect its construction programme from possible litigation. According to the Business Day articles, it has engaged in “thorough consultation”, followed “due process”, held public meetings and followed statutory requirements. “Printed invitations were also hand delivered”.

Despite all this footwork, will Go!Durban solve its public transport problems? No. Not by itself. Durban, like all other South African cities, has a long history of fragmented planning and mediocre public transport that can’t be fixed by infrastructure alone.

Up to the 1960s most South African cities looked after the transport needs of their white residents quite well. Back in 1927, Durban operated no fewer than 184 trams a day to the upmarket white suburb of Mitchell Park. The council allowed privately owned “Indian” buses to operate in non-white areas – a situation that still exists to a certain extent, except that minibus taxis now run everywhere and have virtually taken over completely in the central area.

The number of these taxis owned by city councillors could be the subject of another article, but the recent firing of the Buffalo City top brass for diverting Mandela funeral funds to the local taxi industry raises the question of whether any city council, anywhere, can be trusted to fix public transport!

Anyway, in 1952 the Durban city council created an outfit called the Durban Transport Management Board (DTMB) to run the bus service. Up to 1968 it focused almost entirely on eliminating trolleybuses, in the process halving white passenger numbers and boosting private vehicle usage.

A small, short-lived uptick took place in 1987, when the Mynah service was introduced, but, after 1994, the situation unravelled completely when the DTMB was disbanded. The last fifteen years of public transport in Durban can only be described as a case study in how not to run a bus service.

Currently the council runs three separate bus operations: People Mover, Mynah and Aqualine, each with its own fare structure, timetables and operating methods. No attempt is being made to rationalise them and to balance the oversupply on some routes and undersupply on others.

If Go!Durban is to succeed, it would be helpful if the city council displayed some commitment to fixing what is already in place and over which it has some control. There are enough resources, in the three services mentioned, to immediately put together a mini-network of routes in the Durban area, stretching from King Shaka Airport to Amanzimtoti, and from Durban to Hammarsdale, as contemplated in the Go!Durban plan.

Later developments could include introducing additional routes, operated by the minibus industry, offering maybe 50 to 60 trips a day into most populated areas.

Sadly, as usual, too much emphasis is being placed on expensive infrastructure. As Gauteng has discovered, this costs money and merely plays into the hands of the “cosy club” of construction and consultancy interests. These grand plans have failed to stem the explosion in car usage.

We need leaders who can drive the post-apartheid public transport agenda in South Africa, not just fool around. Will the Gauteng review panel have the vision to recognise the problem? If not, will Durban show the way?

Watch this space.


Vaughan Mostert is a senior lecturer in the Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management at the University of Johannesburg. He developed a love for public transport early in life, which led to a lifelong academic interest in the subject. 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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