October talk-shop month

October talk-shop month

While formal public transport agencies in the developed world are proposing partnerships with the likes of Uber, in South Africa the focus is not where it should be


As I write this, we’re trundling our weary way through October Transport Month. As we do this, remember that most of its activities have been disconnected with reality.

In 2014, the Soweto Business Express was introduced, which ground to a halt six months later. In 2015, there was the grand opening of cycle lanes in Sandton; a programme now put on ice by the incoming Metro council.

So what is in store for October 2016?

I have no idea … so, while we wait, let’s note that organisations like Uber and Lyft are being approached, by formal public transport agencies in the developed world, to take over from underperforming bus services in low-density, car-rich areas. The October 1 issue of The Economist gives a summary of the current situation worldwide.

In addition to Uber, Lyft and Bridj, we have the rather bland GoDrive and DriveNow, as well as the catchier Voom, Zum, BlaBlaCar and UbiGo – each one representing a different combination of options for the user.

However, the article stresses that these new schemes will have limited impact in developing countries, singling out Mexico City with its 50 000 minibuses as an example. That also applies to South Africa – even though Uber and others have a foothold here, we still need to first sort out our chaotic public transport situation.

Many thousands of commuters spend well over 60 minutes in public transport each day, putting them outside the reach of impractical cycle paths and expensive hired cars. Government’s first priority should be to keep this group happy.  

Right now the news in South Africa isn’t encouraging…

The Gautrain continues to place advertorials in the media repeating the falsehood that its expansion “is part of” a non-existent 25-year plan.

During this transport month, one particular dialogue, in which the Gautrain will take part, will consider the question: “Is there a case to be made for looking beyond the traditional cost-benefit analysis in cases where the investment may make the cities more sustainable over the long term?”

(Read: we probably won’t be able to come up with benefits remotely related to the costs, so let’s confuse people even more by throwing the net wider.)

The expansion of the Gautrain involves a number of new stations that are seven kilometres apart, on average. That will require a vastly improved network of bus services, but Gauteng’s record in running public transport – whether buses or the Gautrain – shows that it doesn’t seem to know how to get value for money.

Its 2016/17 transport budget reveals that it spends R2,3 billion on keeping buses on the road, operating on 3 047 routes. That sounds like a lot of routes, but there are only five trips a day on each route. That number of trips needs to increase at least six-fold but, with another R1,8 billion already going to the Gautrain, there won’t be enough money to go around.

Turning to Ethekwini, we read that Go!Durban has signed a memorandum of understanding with the local private bus operators association. Now that’s good news – it should have happened 80 years ago. Many of these buses operate along North Coast Road and South Coast Road, which carry enough buses over at least 30 km to justify electrification (either light rail or trolleybus).

Individual operators have never had the resources to start operating a capital-intensive mode, but, in cooperation with each other and with the city, such a scheme can fly.

Not so encouraging is the plan to spend R23 billion on a fast-rail line to King Shaka airport – that’s in addition to the R22 billion already committed to other projects. Bearing in mind that there was no feasibility study for the airport itself, perhaps Go!Durban is hoping that no one will ask too many questions about this rail link either.

Meanwhile, the municipality continues to offer a woeful bus timetable. If Durban was serious about public transport, it would have started to clean up its existing services long ago.

In Cape Town, the city council is, presumably, overjoyed at the court decision to disallow tolling of highways in the area. This might sound like a big victory, but I fail to see how this will relieve congestion – the daily grind along De Waal Drive during the morning and afternoon peaks won’t go away.

Sanral would not have to widen freeways, let alone toll them, if basic public transport was improved.

Here’s an example from Cape Town: Golden Arrow Bus Services still runs a service to Sea Point, duplicating the MyCiti bus rapid transit. If these buses were transferred to operate from, say, Stellenbosch to link up with the MyCiti service at the airport, Cape Town would start making a very small dent in the traffic problem there.

Let’s see what October Talk-shop Month produces in 2016!


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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Focus on Transport

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