Keep an eye on George!
It is still early days, but George could become the first city in South Africa to sort out its minibus taxi situation, thereby becoming the benchmark for the rest of the country – and the implications could be significant.
We pick up the story in 2008, when Deidre Ribbonaar and Lee van den Berg, of the Western Cape government, presented a paper at the Annual Transport Conference entitled: Public transport system transformation within the context of George municipality. The paper was “old hat” in many respects. It mentioned the need to uplift communities and to reposition the minibus operators within a formal network as contracted operators.
A gross contract system would apply, with a flat fare, allowing users to transfer from one route to another if necessary. Most of the community would live within a five-minute walk of the system. Services would run for 18 hours a day, seven days a week. A lot of negotiation with a variety of stakeholders would be required – the paper stressed the need to handle the operators with “sensitivity”.
Most of this had already been set out in the government’s transport policy of October 2006 – all that the George document added were the names of the suburbs to be served and that 80 vehicles would be needed. I switched off when I read that all this was due to start at the end of that same year – a timeline that couldn’t possibly be met. And this proved to be the case.
To my surprise, George has resurfaced. I recommend readers visit the website of the George Integrated Public Transport Network (GIPTN), which indicates that a lot of work has been done behind the scenes during the last five years. The numbers have changed since 2008 – about 390 current operating licences will be replaced by 200 contracts. These figures underline just how overtraded the industry is – a situation probably true of the entire country. The website refers to “new” vehicles but, frankly, the country is so cash-strapped that existing 15-seaters may be the only way to go right now.
As a sweetener, those operators who wish to withdraw from the industry will receive a once-off R350 000 for the first licence surrendered, and somewhat less for second and third.
The GIPTN website does not mention what the rate per kilometre will be, or what fares will be charged. Let’s expect a loss – scheduled services always cost more to run, as they must operate whether the vehicle is full or not. In the 2008 document a loss of R20 million was mentioned.
We need to push ahead with schemes like this all over South Africa where opportunities exist for small vehicles to operate on a schedule, picking up the locals and taking them to the nearest transfer points such as railway stations, as well as to shopping centres, schools and clinics. George simply must succeed.
We cannot continue to neglect our widespread low-density areas where car ownership is high and which generate most of the congestion on our roads. Let us not forget that almost all the uptake in personal movement in South Africa from now on needs to take place on public transport. So, go George!
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.