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What to do with the charging bull?

September 11, 2018
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Should South Africa be rethinking its approach to public transport reform? Gavin Myers attended the 2018 Southern African Transport Conference to find out

Where are we with public transport?” began Henrie Schalekamp, research officer at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Centre for Transport Studies. “What do we do with rail? Is it so dysfunctional that we abandon it – or should we try to revitalise it? Bus services fall into no-man’s land… Many are legacy services that service demand that we don’t necessarily have any more; frequencies are low and state funding is high.

“Bus rapid transit (BRT) has its own particular dynamics: It’s so expensive to operate, because land use in South Africa’s cities is very spread out compared to the high-density cities in South America, where the BRT concept emerged.

“The other reason is that the peak to off-peak ratio is also very high (Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya experiences nine-times more riders at peak times). So who should pay the operating-cost subsidies?” he asks.

Then, of course, there are minibus taxis to consider.

“This is the biggest mode of transport in the country: minibus taxis transport about two thirds of public-transport passengers. It’s a charging bull of small vehicles-transporting South Africans in many different applications; yet we understand it poorly and it receives no subsidies from government,” he stated.

It was, therefore, no surprise that this sector held the focus of the panellists in the session on public-transport reform.

“One of the biggest things missing from South Africa’s public-transport plans has been to look at what we have – instead of starting with something new and then trying to fit in what we have,” Schalekamp stated. He added that there is much that can be done in partnership with the minibus-taxi industry to fix public transport in South Africa.

“Yes, the minibus-taxi industry has many problems – there is a dissonance in how owners and drivers see their vehicles (day to day) and what government envisions (in the long term). Cash is preferred by operators and passengers. Their management should be better despite established business models. Drivers receive no wages, but must reach certain targets in order to earn an income,” he explained.

However, he said, this means there is room for innovation… “There are stakeholders getting involved to do things differently,” Schalekamp said.

The various initiatives include:

• Working within existing national and city frameworks to improve public transport (GoGeorge is an example of thinking differently);

• City and taxi stakeholders engaging outside of government, such as the Gautrain bus services partnering with taxi operators;

• Fleet and infrastructure improvements, such as the taxi recapitalisation programme, dedicated rights of way and formal ranking facilities;

• Professional development initiatives; and

• Implementation of ICT tools such as mapping services or cashless fares.

“Cities are beginning to look beyond infrastructure to facilitate change in the taxi sector. The work culminated in a Cities Workshop in March, to see what goes into planning and what needs to be refocused.

“However, with 200 000 taxis in the country it’s impossible to engage with all business owners. So we have to break down the process and also understand the different dynamics. We’ve found that the industry’s members are receptive to an open mindset and willingness to work as partners.” Schalekamp noted.

This is especially important, he said, when one considers the history of distrust associated with the minibus-taxi industry. “The key is to build trust on a person-to-person basis. It’s a large effort of transparent discussion.

There are, however, pockets where this is already happening. The first is in Cape Town, where the minibus-taxi industry is being incorporated into the city’s integrated public transport network.

“MyCiTi has taught us some lessons… It’s not always desirable to replace minibus taxis with BRT, especially on feeder routes. Taxis offer a more frequent, flexible service, which users prefer,” explained Abdoul Bassier, director: regulations at the Cape Town Transport and Urban Development Authority.

Limited funding bore a hybrid idea – where minibus taxis are crucial in rendering services in an integrated way. “If we cannot transform the industry we will struggle to implement an integrated public transport network (IPTN). Improving minibus-taxi services is one of our top-four concerns, and we want to improve conditions for taxi passengers, operators, other road users and government,” Bassier added.

To do so, the city has created a minibus-taxi transformation strategy model.

Said Bassier: “We have to change the business model of the industry to be operator run and controlled. This will provide better incentive, and operators should see immediate benefits and reduced destructive competition. The biggest challenge, however, is convincing operators to concede their licences in order to be shareholders in a transport operating company.”

A pilot project that was implemented in Mitchells Plain during November 2017 is already proving the operational benefits.

Over in eThekwini, Moja Cruise (a voluntary incentive programme designed to change the behaviour of the minibus-taxi industry) has been implemented. The programme does not force minibus-taxi operators to form companies, but is designed to change their behaviour within their current operations.

The project aims to improve the reliability and safety of public transport; develop and empower drivers and all other stakeholders within the region’s minibus-taxi industry; as well as to track the vehicles to generate information in aid of future planning (the city foots the bill for the fitment of the devices).

Analytics of the tracking data will also help with driver and operator scoring, which will dictate the remuneration they receive. All vehicles will be branded.

An important pilot of Moja Cruise is to implement it between key nodes and the King Shaka International airport. It will also provide feeders to the integrated rapid public-transport network (IRPTN). Once the project reaches a certain point, the city plans to formalise the participants into companies that can be incorporated into its IRPTN operations.

Participation in Moja Cruise is a prerequisite to get involved in the city’s transportation transformation programmes. Currently, the programme is in its second phase where 500 vehicles are being piloted. It will come up for review in November and the aim is to implement a full roll-out of
2 500 vehicles by 2019.

The municipality is currently paying for the project, with no funding being providing by the National Department of Transport at this point.

My life has always revolved around anything with wheels and an engine. It doesn’t matter if its an old banger, the latest hot-hatch or a fancy 4×4 – any excuse is a good excuse to take it for a cruise, spank it at the track or go bundu-bashing (the mud-and-rocks-side-of-a-mountain type, not the exploring-Joburg’s-pavements type). Otherwise, chances are you’ll find me lying underneath one of my beloved toys or with my head buried in its engine bay, tinkering away.

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