Small guys out in the cold

Small guys out in the cold

While informal minibus-taxi operators were incorporated into the Bus Rapid Transport planners’ vision of public transport for Johannesburg, small bus operators have not been so lucky. That’s according to executive manager of the South African Bus Operators Association (SABOA), Eric Cornelius.

 

The Rea Vaya project, or the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) System, is one of the most significant public transportation initiatives in the country, and it will fundamentally transform the public transport industry in Johannesburg, basically replacing the current modes of the public transport in the city. The implementation of Phase 1A of Johannesburg’s anticipated BRT is well on the way to completion despite the occasional hiccup. Phase 1B follows and is planned for completion in August 2011.

From 31 August 2009 until 1 March 2010, when it began rolling out Phase 1A, the City of Johannesburg (COJ) operated a trunk route service that commenced at Thokoza Park in Soweto and ran 25.5 km to Ellis Park, north-east of the CBD. It used 23 stations en route on a round trip. Then, from 1 March 2010, a complementary service ran directly from Dobsonville to the Johannesburg CBD and Ellis Park Station. Feeder services transported passengers from Naledi to Thokoza Park Station, from Jabavu to Lake View Station and from Mofolo to Boomtown Station. Additional services introduced in May 2010 included a complementary service directly from Dobsonville to Soweto’s Maponya Mall, and feeder services from Protea Glen to Thokoza Park Station, and from Eldorado Park to Thokoza Park Station. A CBD distribution service was introduced to link the trunk service with Braamfontein, Wits University and Hillbrow. For those who followed the World Cup, this is the service that many football fans made use of during this sporting event.

In Phase 1B a trunk or dedicated lane route will “close the circle” and run from Noordgesig to Highgate, Empire Road, Parktown, Metro Centre, Rissik Street eventually joining Phase 1A. Once the Gautrain begins operations from Park Station to Sandton, further work will be done to determine the most appropriate routes and ways to extend the Rea Vaya service to the North.

HOW IT WORKS
After three years of negotiations a Participation Framework Agreement was signed in January 2010, which set out how minibus-taxi operators would become beneficiaries and shareholders of Rea Vaya’s new Bus Operating Company. The contract that was signed between the Rea Vaya operators and the COJ has a number of clauses, including penalties if bus drivers do not drive safely, or if the company does not maintain and clean the buses regularly.

The Rea Vaya system uses two types of buses: articulated 18-meter high-floor buses (with right-hand doors for level boarding at median stations) and standard 13-meter high-floor buses (with doors on both sides; left-hand doors have steps and a wheelchair lift for curbside boarding).

The protests by certain taxi industry operators against the BRT transport plans, which will affect their routes, has been in the news a fair deal. But for the majority of operators who chose to cooperate with the city in the first phase – the Phase 1A operating contract – it means they now own and operate the first Rea Vaya-contracted Bus Operating Company. This interim bus company is being operated by Metrobus and Putco on behalf of the taxi industry. To reach the highest possible efficiency, the initial bus system, the Metrobus, was adapted to the BRT routes and 170 bus stops were built for feeder buses.

BRT – room for improvement?
Despite the first phase lacking some of the traditional BRT features such as an automatic fare system or real-time vehicle control, Eric Cornelius, executive manager of the South African Bus Operators Association (SABOA), says Phase 1A is working.

Metrobus and Putco are SABOA members and they are integral to BRT, along with the informal minibus-taxi operators. But Cornelius is not all praise. He says SABOA’s smaller members have not been included in the BRT plans. “There was one meeting in 2005 with the bus industry to discuss different BRT phases, and regular meetings were promised, but this is where it stopped,” he reveals. One of Cornelius’ concerns is that these small operators are experienced, unlike the taxi industry that has been included in the planning for the BRT thus far.

This problem has historical roots, Cornelius explains. In the past government struck contracts to render subsidized services with bus operators. Small operators were excluded from this system while taxis were allowed to operate on the routes if issued with permits. This was the case before 1994 and the situation has not changed for small operators. Since 575 taxis were displaced in Rea Vaya’s Phase 1A it is not surprising that minibus-taxi operators were offered stakes in the new BRT bus operating company. But, as the city expands the BRT network, will there be room to include small bus operators?

“Although small operators do have contracts with the Department of Education, for instance, they have not been included at this stage of the BRT,” says Cornelius. “It will be at least another 10 to 12 years before they can even be considered for inclusion.”

While many small operators have been bought out by bigger players such as Putco, NTI and Great North Transport in the past, the sector still operates where it can. Time will tell whether expertise built up over the years, against the odds, will be incorporated by planners as BRT is further rolled out.

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