Is MyCiTi unsustainable?
In the third instalment of our four-part series on public transport in Cape Town, MARISKA MORRIS investigates the MyCiTi bus rapid transit (BRT) system’s R52-million deficit and what plans have been proposed to turn this around
There is no dispute about the popularity of the MyCiTi bus rapid transit (BRT) service. In November 2016 alone, there were 1,76-million passenger journeys, according to the Transport and Urban Development Authority (TDA). More significantly, the bus service has attracted non-traditional commuters; including middle-class passengers who own their own vehicles.
Much of the success of the MyCiTi system is due to its reliability. Since June 2016, the TDA has reported a 90-percent “on time” status for its buses. The term, according to the international norm, is defined as referring to “buses that are between two minutes early and five minutes late”, the TDA notes.
The popularity of the MyCiTi service will, however, not protect it against the R52-million deficit it faces for the 2016/17 financial year. The City spent approximately R278 million on subsidising the service in 2016. Brett Herron, Cape Town mayoral committee member for transport, argues that the city should not be criticised for the large subsidy, as these subsidies are the norm across the globe.
The city has little choice other than to subsidise the MyCiTi system, as commuter fares cover only about 40 percent of costs, explains Roger Behrens, director of the Centre for Transport Studies (CfTS) at the University of Cape Town.
“The TDA has realised that it cannot afford to maintain that level of subsidy if the bus service is rolled out across the city,” he notes. When the city was asked why the MyCiTi transport subsidies are so high, it referred to the inefficient spacial planning structure inherited from the apartheid era, but this is only part of the problem.
Why the system is so expensive
The blueprint for the MyCiTi BRT system (as well as its sister programme Rea Vaya, located in Johannesburg), is based on a Latin American transport system, which has reported up to 45 000 passengers per hour on one corridor.
“That’s not far off what the entire Rea Vaya system is doing in a day,” Behrens says. Latin American passenger numbers are much higher as a result of spatial planning. These cities are densely populated, with passengers travelling short distances. This means there are more passengers sitting on the same seat – a process referred to as “seat renewal”.
With seat renewal, one seat generates multiple fares along the bus route. This has led to some cities, such as Bogotá (in Colombia), reporting a subsidy-free transport service. Policy makers were hoping for a similar outcome in South Africa when implementing the BRT systems. Behrens believes that they were too optimistic.
The MyCiTi service doesn’t have the same level of seat renewal as the services in Latin America, because passengers need to travel long distances to get to their places of work. There is a lack of development along public transport routes, which makes the city less dense.
Another challenge for the MyCiTi system is that it is very expensive to build and maintain.
The buses have expensive, complex electronics and there is an entire office dedicated to running the sophisticated fare collection system. The stations and kiosks need to be maintained as do enclosed, air-conditioned rooms with turnstiles, remote-controlled doors and bullet-proofing.
Drivers work seven to nine-hour shifts. There are multiple drivers, and benefits, which include pension, medical aid and sick leave. “To run a system that is so infrastructure heavy is expensive,” says Herrie Schalekamp, research officer at CfTS.
The TDA echoes the specialists’ concerns over the current subsidy, which, it argues, will not be sufficient to cover increasing operating costs. Plans to extend the service to other areas will need to be cancelled because of these high costs. The authority is, however, looking at “creative ways of cutting the cost of travel” in the hope of reducing the subsidy.
The plan to save money
The first plan is to increase fares, which will bring in an extra R20 million. This will undoubtedly be an unpopular decision, as some commuters already find the fares expensive. The city is also planning to implement transit-oriented land development.
This focuses on building houses, offices and retail space in close proximity to quality public transport, thus creating a “walkable neighbourhood”. In theory, this will create a more densely populated city, which should bring about shorter trips and seat renewal. The integrated public transport network plan has been approved and will be implemented over the next 20 years.
However, the financial benefits of this long-term solution might not solve MyCiTi’s financial situation soon enough. Behrens suggests a more practical, short-term solution with a hybrid-transport system that merges the informal minibus-taxi industry with the MyCiTi system to reduce costs – something the TDA did not envisage initially.
Behrens explains that during the planning phases in 2007, policy makers predicted that once the bus service was up and running, there would be no market left for the minibus-taxi industry, as MyCiTi would form the backbone of all public transport in Cape Town.
The MyCiTi system was implemented in 2010 and was soon expanded along the West Coast. Areas such as Dunoon and Atlantis were a priority, since there was no other formal public transport in those areas and residents relied solely on minibus taxis.
As the MyCiTi expanded its reach, the city slowly phased out the taxi industry. Taxi owners were compensated, drivers were employed (after receiving training) as bus drivers and no new taxi operating licences were issued.
By August 2015, the city announced the withdrawal of the remaining taxis in Atlantis, Table View and Dunoon. A total of 149 minibus taxis operating in Atlantis were removed and another 229 taxis were removed in Table View and Dunoon. It wasn’t long afterwards that the city realised that complete phasing out of the minibus-taxi industry was unrealistic.
The TDA says: “Minibus-taxis will always be part of the public transport offering. The Authority is now looking at ways of integrating the taxi and bus industries.”
What the hybrid transport system will look like
The hybrid transport system will essentially integrate the formal MyCiTi services with informal minibus-taxi services in a way that they complement each other to provide an affordable, reliable service for commuters. Formal, scheduled bus services, for example, will be used in high-volume corridors with large numbers of passengers.
Minibuses will run on routes with fewer passengers. Both services will run in the dedicated red bus lanes to increase efficiency. A limited number of minibuses will also run in the areas where the MyCiTi fails to meet peak demand.
The minibuses will not be allowed to run during off-peak periods, with the hope that this will encourage minibus-taxi passengers to move to the bus service.
Negotiations are currently underway to see whether this hybrid transport system is feasible. The TDA estimates that there will be a 50- to 70-percent drop in government funding if this plan is implemented.
“There is now a grant system to help municipalities fund investment in public transport. Recently the wording has changed, which forces municipalities to demonstrate the financial sustainability of proposed projects,” says Schalekamp. It is hoped that this will prevent future public transport projects from relying on unsustainable subsidies.
Despite all these challenges, the bus service is undoubtedly innovative; for example, it provides free WiFi. There is also talk of using electric buses to reduce carbon emissions. BYD SA Company was awarded a tender in October 2016 to provide ten electric buses and charging stations.
More importantly, the MyCiTi system has changed the public’s view on public transport. “People are now talking about public transport. You see ads for accommodation mention ‘we are close to the MyCiti bus route’,” Schalekamp mentions.
Promoting public transport is essential to reduce congestion in Cape Town. The city still believes the MyCiTi system can be the backbone of transport in the Western Cape. Perhaps this will happen, but it first needs to become more financially viable.