With billions invested and an underwhelming performance, the shiny newness of the South African bus rapid transit (BRT) systems is finally wearing off. MARISKA MORRIS ponders whether the system can ever live up to expectations.
The disappointment in South African’s BRT systems was realised as early as 2016 when the Cape Town MyCiTi service made headlines for the R52-million deficit it faced for the 2016/17 financial year. The same year, the city spent and estimated R278 million subsidising the service.
In 2017, Sipho Mabena, in an article for Times Live, quoted then transport minister Joe Maswanganyi: “We are acknowledging as the Department of Transport (DoT) that there are challenges with BRT systems.” At that point, around R15 billion has been was spent on implementing BRT systems in the three Gauteng metros.
Possibly the biggest challenge is the lack of urban density, which translates to fewer commuters travelling longer distances. MyCiTi, arguably the most successful South African BRT system, moves around 75 000 passengers a day, or around 3 750 passengers an hour if operating for 20 hours a day.
Colombia sees 45 000 commuters per hour per direction. Although the Latin American BRT systems acted as a blueprint for local services, the outcome couldn’t be more different.
During a 2018 Transport Forum event, Ibrahim Seedat, public transport policies director at the DoT, noted: “Tshwane should never have launched (its BRT system) in 2014. You cannot launch a bus service if you are projecting 8 000 passengers a day. They’re running at 3 000 to 4 000 commuters, which isn’t even a taxi service.”
The cost of operating a BRT system is the second challenge. Roger Behrens, associate professor in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Cape Town, notes: “Probably the biggest challenge is operating cost. Far from eliminating or significantly reducing operating subsidies, as was hoped a decade ago, the BRT services that have reached implementation have required considerable operating subsidies.”
The Latin American systems operate without any subsidy. It was hoped that local services would have a similar outcome. However, in 2015, the cost recovery was only 30 percent for Rea Vaya and 40 percent for MyCiTi. Some of the subsidies were paid by national grants, but others were the responsibility of the metropolitan municipalities, which placed a tremendous strain on budgets.
Despite the unrealised vision, some argue that the money is the less important question. Instead, government should be considering the return on investment of the BRT systems.
Gary Hayes, transport researcher at the Centre for Transport Development at the University of Pretoria, and Christo Venter, associate professor at the same Centre, raised this very question in their article titled: The elephant in the bus – can we afford better public transport?
The two say: “BRT systems are, at the moment, transporting more than 120 000 passengers (one-way trips) every day, and surveys show that passengers generally prefer the quality of BRT to other modes. So, purely on the basis of the number of people already benefiting, BRT is by no means simply a failure.
“However the time may be right to rethink our approach to mass transit in South Africa, including how we plan, design and fund it.”
Venter explains: “It is not possible for government to make BRT ‘profitable’ in the sense that the systems are able to cover their own costs from user fares. The spatial patterns of our cities in South Africa are such that all our public transport systems operate under difficult conditions, including long travel distances and very little use during off-peak periods.
“As a result, buses are not used very effectively. Cost recovery shouldn’t necessarily be the goal of public transport systems – at least not those that are to make a larger contribution to the good functioning of a city.”
Subsidised transport often translates in more affordable transport, better mobility for children and non-car users, reduced congestion and a better, healthier environment. There are also economic arguments to support the subsidising of public transport according to Behrens.
“These include to address market failure and provide uneconomical services that are essential for the functioning of the city economy; to promote equity and welfare; and to create the so-called ‘Mohring effect’, which argues that the more users there are, the more useful the system is,” he says.
Venter argues that if the goal is to provide subsidy-free transport, we would have to rely on the informal minibus-taxi industry, which comes with reduced safety and user satisfaction.
“The key question is thus not whether we should be subsidising BRT, but if we are getting enough benefit for what we are spending,” he notes. “I believe BRT systems are part of the solution of the future, but several things should be done to improve their benefits.”
The BRT systems are already built and can’t be completely abandoned. Instead, it is important for government to consider alternatives to revive interest in the concept and raise money. The first approach might be to increase fares, but this would be a mistake as Hayes and Venter point out.
“Cities have relatively little room for growing revenues by raising fares. A 2017 study showed that BRT demand in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane is very fare sensitive. Higher fares would also further curtail BRT use by the poorest passengers, who are already underrepresented, thus further limiting its impact on social equity and poverty,” they say.
Instead, government can think of creative ways to attract more passengers. First of which would be to increase population density near the BRT corridors. Hayes and Venter explain: “Densities around BRT corridors can be improved by accelerating the co-location of housing and BRT routes, such as is already happening to a limited extent in Johannesburg’s Corridors of Freedom initiative.”
They further point out that the current systems should be integrated with other existing public transport systems including minibus taxis and e-hailing services like Uber. A good approach to this is introducing a common cashless fare system for easy transfer.
“Intelligent integration of (upgraded) minibus taxis into the public network could greatly expand the number of people benefiting from the upgrading of public transport,” Hayes and Venter explain. “Some cities, such as Cape Town, are already exploring minibus integration into a ‘hybrid BRT model’ as a way of reducing operating costs to keep the city’s contribution within the four-percent cap.”
This hybrid system might be easier to implement than most cities suspect. “While undoubtedly requiring quality-of-service improvements, minibus-taxi services offer considerable benefits with respect to demand responsiveness and service viability that should not be lost,” Behrens notes.
“Current research done by PhD student Chris Plano suggests that a complementary hybrid system can be created without extensive revision of the existent minibus-taxi business model and at reasonable cost to the public sector,” he adds.
There might not be an alternative for the minibus-taxi industry, as it will soon face disruptive technologies. “E-hailing initiatives in the paratransit sector are mushrooming across sub-Saharan Africa (for example Kenya’s BuuPass) and further afield ‘mobility-as-a-service’ solutions are also emerging rapidly,” Behrens explains.
With a more integrated system, the buses and minibuses can both be provided with dedicated lanes to improve service reliability and operating speed. This will make the services even more appealing.
Behrens also calls for a revision and update such as the 2007 Public Transport Strategy “so that city authorities have more flexibility and better guidance on how to reform their public transport networks”.
Hayes and Venter suggest alternative transport-related revenue sources such as charging for congestion and parking levies. Although unpopular, these alternatives can help motivate residents to opt for public transport and generate more funding to subsidise existing public transport services.