SA Public Transport Strategy


South Africa’s public transport strategy is fine. But we all need to help with the execution

It’s 7:20 am on the M3 heading into Cape Town. You have been staring at the bumper of the bakkie in front of you for the last 15 minutes. The vehicle must weigh a couple of tons. It is five metres long, and there is one man by himself in the cab. You watch a grey cough of diesel smoke come out of the exhaust as he crawls the machine into the next lane, to avoid wreckage that has reduced a three-lane road to a single lane. The music on the radio is awful, and you are going to be late.

You spend fourteen hours of your week like this. It costs a fortune, it is wasting your life, and (whatever you argue in the pub) you are starting to admit to yourself that it is stuffing up the planet that your kids will have to live on.

The answer to all of this is a public transport system that is fast, safe, energy-efficient, comfortable and convenient. Of course, we are not going to get one anytime soon.

South Africa has an official Public Transport Strategy (PTS). It incorporates global best practice, and carefully balances the needs of different communities. It builds on existing investments, and has new legislation to back it up.

The PTS is intended to improve access to transport, and to encourage switching from cars to public transport. Urban areas are to be served by BRT systems and high-speed rail. Rail infrastructure and rolling stock is to be upgraded, and integrated transport planning to be backed by integrated ticketing and timetabling.

There is much good news. For example, Jo’burg and Cape Town now have good BRT systems, 86% of the targeted urban rail infrastructure projects were completed on time, and some 2000 urban rail coaches have been refurbished. The Gautrain is impressive and useful, although it serves only a small fraction of the 14 million South Africans who commute each day. The average rail commute appears to have quickened by more than ten minutes in the ten years to 2013, according to Stats SA’s National Household Travel Survey.

The less good news is that the PTS as a whole, originally due to be implemented by 2020, is already several years behind schedule.   Combined with a constantly rising urban population, this means that the average South African faces a longer journey to work than ten years ago, and one that is more expensive in real terms.

How can this improve? It is theoretically possible that government could throw more money at the problem. However, the implementation of the PTS does not have a specific, central budget. Instead, it is funded out of dozens of grants and accounts at national, provincial and municipal levels. So it is unlikely that a meaningfully large budget increase could be provided quickly, even if national government decided that this was the answer.

The real answer is in our own hands. Single-occupancy car use is a necessary evil for some of us. For most of us, however, it is possible to find neighbours and colleagues who go the same way as us, at the same times as us. If we can find out who they are, find a way to share the cost of travel between us at the push of a button, and agree to share rides efficiently, then a lot of good consequences will follow.

As individuals, we will use less fuel, spend less money, and create less carbon dioxide. We might also get some good conversation and some new friends.

If enough of us do it, we will travel quicker and park more easily. In Cape Town, for example, around 3.3% of people use ridesharing to get to work today. If rideshare in Cape Town rose to just 10%, then that would be 65,000 fewer car journeys daily. Yes, sixty-five thousand. Which means over 30,000 fewer cars on the roads each day, thousands of tones per year of carbon dioxide savings, and acres and acres of clear parking spaces.

Ridesharing is like public transport, for the people, by the people. It doesn’t require investment. Quite the reverse: it saves money. It could happen tomorrow morning if we have the will.

If only there were some sort of simple app on my cellphone that would let me find ride partners, make safe arrangements with them, track the money that we owe each other, and let us settle up with the push of a button. That would make me far more likely to rideshare.

Hang on, that gives me an idea …

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