Public transport pandemonium
Although strides have been made in terms of our country’s public transport sector, it still leaves a lot to be desired. CLAIRE RENCKEN speaks to Vaughan Mostert, senior lecturer in the Transport and Supply Chain Management Department, at the University of Johannesburg, about the lack of transport leadership at all levels – provincial, municipal and even academic.
Nobody likes negative publicity. But sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. Mostert has never been afraid to do that. He’s been questioning the decisions of the public transport sector since 1965, when he wrote a letter to a local newspaper opposing the decision to eliminate trolley buses. And he’s still doing it today.
“It’s all very good and well to read about the impressive plans of the Rea Vaya system or the Gautrain buses, for example, but what ever happened to integration? Why are billions of rand being spent on new bus systems, further segmenting an already fragmented public transport sector, rather than finding a way to integrate existing systems to create one functional unit?” asks Mostert.
“In the meantime, the public has had ‘a gut-full’ of pathetic public transport,” says an exasperated Mostert. “As a result, more and more people who can afford to do so, are buying cars and opting for private transport.”
Mostert fears that cars are going to take over to such an extent in South Africa that public transport is going to become irrelevant. He says: “Car sales are going up by about 20 percent year on year. And what no one seems to realise is that once passenger numbers on buses have dropped, it takes months for the public to regain faith in the system and return to give it another try.
“There is no culture of public transport left in this country anymore. That needs to be developed all over again,” notes Mostert. “Nowadays, we have all these unsuccessful new buses on the roads, operating sub-optimally. The only buses that are full are probably the Putco buses. Double decker buses, which can accommodate 72 people, operate trips during the peak period with less than 25 people on board. What a waste.”
Over the years, Mostert has put together various proposals on how one single, co-ordinated network of buses, with proper standardised routes and schedules, is the way to go. On the topic of routing, for example, he has often questioned what he refers to as the “Verwoerdian planning” that still seems to be used when routes are mapped.
He adds: “Nobody wants to venture out of the old areas – Ekurhuleni stays within its borders, Soweto within its borders, and so on. Why not extend the routes into new territory and create a comprehensive, fully functional system?”
But his academic advice has been ignored, even by his colleagues at the university. “It seems to me that those in charge are in ‘focused denial’. I’ve watched numerous bad ideas, with their inflated projections, being pushed through. There is just no incentive or leadership from anyone to take a stand against these initiatives.
“Just look at Rea Vaya – there’s been a Rea Vaya station right outside our university here on Kingsway Avenue for three years now. It’s still not operational. No visible progress is being made. Every now and then a team comes and paints a few extra lines on the road. There’s no communication between Rea Vaya and the university about the proposed routes and times of these buses that are supposed to become operational in September,” he adds.
Meanwhile, if you pick up the Northcliff Melville Times of May 14, splashed across the front page is the headline “It’s all systems go! Rea Vaya world-class system to be launched in October.” The article proceeds to give a glowing review of this “new and exciting way to travel”. This begs the question – are we being fed propaganda?
Like Mostert, independent public transport analyst, Paul Browning, has also expressed concern about the fact that proper public participation is not always facilitated before new systems are implemented.
In an article he wrote for the Pretoria News on May 8, he makes mention of the fact that there has been a marked decline in public interest in the Tshwane Rapid Transit (TRT) public participation meetings. He fears that: “This is because the general information about the project – which was presented at the first meeting – gave no details of costs, nor was there any attempt to illustrate what alternatives had been considered. The message was: This is what has been decided, and you are now invited to learn about those decisions and ask questions on the details.”
So there is a strong possibility that the TRT may come under fire for not giving every opportunity for full public participation, just as Sanral has with the issue of e-tolling.
Looking at the rail sector of our public transport system, Mostert is equally critical. “Why was the Gautrain initiative not incorporated into the existing Metro Rail system? The latter is in a complete shambles – there is little or no control of payment, resulting in fare evasion.” He adds: “If only resources had been pooled to upgrade and integrate existing bus and railway systems, to create a synchronised, efficient system of public transport, rather than billions being spent on the new Gautrain system!”
As tired as many of us may be of hearing this, we need to model our public transport system on one such as London’s. “That is the benchmark of a working public transport system,” says Mostert. “And until someone starts listening and takes a stand to change things for the better, I shall continue to stir the pot!” he concludes determinedly.