Advice for Elon Musk

February 27, 2018
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Transport is fast becoming more of a burden to the economy than an enabler.

As we go through the annual task of counting the bodies after the holiday season, I’d like to know when we are going to start taking the carnage seriously. Instead of building houses, we are spending scarce money on fixing cars, organising funerals and seeing doctors.

And just when I was thinking of congratulating the railways for keeping a clean sheet over the silly season, along came the Kroonstad level-crossing tragedy. Since the accident was allegedly caused by a reckless lorry driver, I fully support the blogger who has suggested that the body count there should be added to the road column.

One of my pet hates is the VIP convoy system. It is particularly galling to read that, following the Kroonstad disaster, President Zuma admonished drivers to behave themselves. You cannot discipline anyone unless you, yourself, are disciplined.

As recently as December I was forced to the side of the road on Beyers Naude Drive in Johannesburg by a convoy of four SUVs carrying (wait for it) a coffin! I thought that our coalition councils were going to put a stop to this nonsense. This is a waste of resources and gives the middle finger to ordinary motorists by showing that different rules apply to different road users.

Another irritant is the lenient sentences handed out to reckless drivers. Now that shared-car services are freely available, few people can stand in front of a magistrate and say “but I need my car”. More licences should simply be cancelled.

Since 2016 there has been a new operator overseas called Chariot, which uses 14-seater vans, runs to a timetable and even allows users to buy a monthly season ticket. It could work well in South Africa.

For me, the biggest issue remains the appalling state of public transport in South Africa, and our almost complete lack of common sense in fixing it. This is where Elon Musk comes in.

In a recent interview he declared his dislike of public transport: “I think public transport is painful … it sucks. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer … and that’s why people like individualised transport that goes where you want, when you want.”

Many people would agree with him, but we need to remember that all forms of transport have problems – you can be mugged while sitting in your car, and are just as likely to be hit by a rock thrown from an overhead bridge whether you’re in a car or a bus.

When Musk was challenged by transport consultant Jarrett Walker, his response was: “You’re an idiot.” Others have now joined the debate. The progress of this debate can be followed on Jarrett’s website: humantransit.org.

While they’re sorting it out, I just wish that highly intelligent people would start paying attention to practical ways to fix existing public transport and stay away from irrational solutions.

Back in the real world, our comatose city councils are at last coming under increased pressure to pay more attention to public transport. Someone has to be responsible for integrating all modes of public transport in every South African city. The councils of all the big cities need to get their acts together – by now they should have realised that their bus rapid transit (BRT) schemes are not the way to go.

Sadly, the clever people in our communities are surprisingly unimaginative when it comes to fixing what is already there. Musk would make an excellent member of the board of directors of Gautrain, where his love for tunnels would come in handy, provided that he offers to finance such schemes using his own money and not dip into the coffers of a country that is bankrupt.

Vaughan Mostert lectured on public transport issues at the University of Johannesburg for nearly thirty years. Through Hopping Off, Mostert leaves readers with some food for thought as he continues his push for change in the local public transport industry.

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