Wheels of change

Wheels of change

Available statistics indicate that 80 percent of South Africa’s population is completely dependent on public transport. JACO DE KLERK investigates some setbacks and developments within this industry.

 

South Africa’s bus industry has, for many years, made a vital contribution to the economic and social development of the country. It has and continues to provide mobility to millions of people who are dependent on public transport.

According to the Southern African Bus Operators’ Association’s (SABOA’s) website, there are about 22 000 buses within the South African industry, of which about 17 000 are involved in formal public transport activities for reward. The other 5 000 buses are found in commerce, industry and government institutions where they are mostly used for in-house, non-reward purposes.

SABOA, the bus industry’s representative body, states that the 17 000 buses in formal public transport activities have an estimated replacement value of R17 billion, travel about 1,02 billion kilometres per annum and use around 453 million litres of fuel over the same period.

This section of the public transport industry provides direct employment to approximately 30 600 people throughout the country, with around 153 000 people being indirectly dependent on this sector. SABOA adds that public transport operators undertake approximately 816 million passenger trips per year.

The importance of this industry is perfectly clear, but South Africa’s public transport has another equally, if not more important pillar; the minibus taxi industry. And herein it seems lies the crux, as the Department of Transport’s (DoT’s) biggest challenge is the restructuring of the public transport system to accommodate the taxi sector.

According to Arrive Alive, this public transport sector represents a model of successful black economic self-empowerment, as it’s the only sector where this ethnic group controls an entire segment through ownership of taxis. And it is the most available and affordable mode of public transport.

“And the most dangerous …” you might say? But Arrive Alive provides some interesting facts that paint a different picture. Taxis account for 65 percent of public transport in total, with buses taking 20 percent of the pie and rail the remaining 15 percent. The taxi industry consists of an estimated 150 000 vehicles; however, of the 36 lives lost daily on our roads, only three are killed in taxi-related incidents.

Taxis are also the most popular mode of transport in urban areas for the majority of South Africa’s population, thus playing an important role in the economy, as so many are reliant on public transport. The taxi sector also employs 200 000 people.

So it would seem that the South African public transport picture is filled with metaphorical unicorns, ponies and ample job opportunities … but what about the routes these horse-like creatures should run on?

Ben Martins, Minister of Transport, shone some light on these routes in his speech at the official opening of the Misgung Interchange – near Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg.

Wheels of change“Since 1994, the democratic government has continued to make significant strides to provide accessible, secure and quality road infrastructure. The launch of this revamped interchange is one of many investments by the Department of Transport and Sanral to achieve this goal,” says Martins.

But at what cost will the DoT and Sanral achieve this goal? In March, during his address to the National Assembly on the transport laws and related matters Amendment Bill of 2012, Martins states: “In terms of the overall infrastructure programme, it is important to note that government took a policy decision to proceed with the infrastructure programme, despite the global economic crisis. Without the required infrastructure for roads, airports, electricity and water, it is impossible to provide an environment for investment and economic growth.”

He adds that a growing budget deficit is a financial reality for South Africa that, if allowed to increase, will be damaging to the economy and growth prospects of the country. So it is government policy to find additional sources of funding to assist National Treasury to meet the demands made on it to implement these infrastructure projects.

“In order to meet these challenges, these infrastructure projects have to be funded through the selective use of a user charge. It is the objective of government to implement prudent policies that will result in long-term benefits to the country,” Martins points out. He adds that a very small portion of the overall road network in South Africa, which exceeds 700 000 km, is tolled.

“Only 3 200 km, approximately 17 percent of the total national road network of 19 000 km, is tolled. The National Treasury therefore still makes funding available for the bulk of roads in South Africa, and tolling is used selectively to provide high-standard infrastructure earlier than it can be provided through tax-based revenues,” Martins explains.

“Funding the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project through a user charge has enabled the upgrading of some 201 km of roads that otherwise would have taken an excess of 12 years to fund, with its associated loss of opportunity,” he adds. “Furthermore, it also ensures that funds for future maintenance and operations are available.”

Martins says: “Without this project, the province’s traffic would have been in a gridlock by now. The traffic volumes on the Gauteng freeway have shown an increase of between 27 and 42 percent for different freeway sections, since 2006.”

He adds: “On the N1 between the Allandale and Buccleuch interchange, morning peak hour traffic increased from 9 000 vehicles in 2008 to 13 000 vehicles in 2013. An independent survey, done by a company providing navigation services, showed that the improvements have led to a 50 percent reduction in travel times on the N1 between Johannesburg and Tshwane in peak hours.”

But despite the compelling argument that Martins makes, the infamous e-tolls are still being opposed by the public at large. And with the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance’s legal challenge to halt e-tolling of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project expected to be heard in in the Supreme Court of Appeal towards the end of the year, all are waiting with bated breath for the outcome.

However, with the important role that road infrastructure plays within the public transport sphere, and the knock that infrastructure expenditure can possibly take if e-tolls are not implemented, it remains to be seen if this will be a triumph or a massive defeat … .

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