Every year October arrives and we are reminded by the government that it is the month to celebrate transport achievement, with the assurance that the government is working to improve SA's public transport system.

Unfortunately for the majority, this jingle is tired. Let’s unpack the past decade: R36bn invested in developing a train that serves the wealthy few of Johannesburg (with a plan to expand to deliberately service poorer areas some time in future); and the single largest procurement deal in SA history to improve the Passenger Rail Agency SA's Metrorail service, but with little to show for it other than more stories of unacceptable service levels, violent commuter protests and devastating train accidents.

Addressing these things takes time, decades in fact. Meanwhile, taxpayers will have to carry the R90bn repayment for the loan used to upgrade Gauteng's freeways in a botched attempt to get vehicle users to pay for use of the upgraded freeways. Make no mistake, the freeways were improved relatively efficiently; it's just we can't agree on how to pay for it.

Cities have likewise spent billions initiating and developing bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, but almost 10 years later Johannesburg — the first to operate — has yet to complete the first full phase of the project. In fact, the national transport strategy that galvanised BRT investment across 13 cities envisioned that all 13 networks would be fully operational by 2019. Only a few months away from this milestone we are celebrating 13 years of Transport Month, yet no-one is able to account for our inability to meet these targets.

The complete lack of a proactive enabling environment to facilitate the rise of technology in the sector has resulted in violence and death surrounding the use and experience of e-hailing services, which for the first time have provided a customer-centric transport experience.

No surprise then that despite all this investment the passenger data is illustrating a steady decline in people using public transport modes in cities. They are opting to use minibus taxis (which says a lot about the current state of state-run public transport) or, if they can afford it, buying cars — still the undisputed champion for getting around.

What is really going on? Public officials driving the shift towards public transport are car captive. When it comes down to it they care more about whether there is a parking spot available, whether the traffic lights are working and whether there are potholes in the roads that might damage their tyres. If trains are four hours late or never arrive it really doesn’t affect them. This means the people responsible for fixing the system have little incentive to make things better. Rather, there is a default to lengthy and delayed planning and procurement processes that take many years and never resolve the softer cultural issues.

We would have more impactful transport investment if the president and his cabinet, the premiers and their excos and the mayors and their mayoral committees committed to use public transport exclusively for one year. And I mean all forms — trains, buses and minibus taxis, not just the Gautrain. Imagine the urgency with which things would get sorted out. 

But let's face it, these systems, provided by the same governments, are too unsafe, too inefficient and don’t really connect to the places people need to get to. Our cities are built for cars and those using public transport must get in line. Quite literally.

For all the efficiency of the Gautrain, it is unaffordable and its operating model is unjust. The government subsidises Gautrain passengers R60 a trip, while minibus taxi riders get zero. Imagine if every minibus taxi user was provided with R60 a trip — for most that would mean free transport. 

Our property development models are not making it any easier. With more developments of low density popping up on the outskirts of cities, the hope of enabling a public transport future is fading into the distance. For most housing projects, transport is an afterthought; at the higher end of the market it is based entirely on ensuring infrastructure for cars.

The good news is that it’s never too late to turn this around. Cities have shown this throughout the world. What it requires is a shock to the system, a fundamentally different way of operating. And then the resilience and perseverance to sustain efforts to doggedly work to ensure the highest performance of the public transport network.

But who is going to stand up to powerful vested interests and take themselves out of the comfort zone of middle-class car-orientated lifestyles and chase public transport performance improvements as if we had to meet a Fifa World Cup deadline? These are the tough questions that are not being asked. But it’s Transport Month, so let’s pretend that everything is on track and wait another year while passengers continue to abandon public transport. 

• Bickford is a researcher and programme manager at the SA Cities Network.