Buses belonging to the City of Tshwane. Picture: SUPPLIED
Buses belonging to the City of Tshwane. Picture: SUPPLIED

The first week of the new year saw two letters from Business Day readers complaining about public transport. They both referred to the situation in Johannesburg, but their comments might well have been applied more generally to public transport in all our major cities.

As it happens, 2019 marks a decade since the passing of the National Land Transport Act. This required all large municipalities to develop integrated public transport plans, and to implement them by way of contracts with professional transport operators. The act was based upon a public transport strategy approved by the cabinet in March 2007.

A new “bus rapid transit” (BRT) concept was to be introduced — high-quality dedicated bus lanes with mini stations rather than bus stops. Feeder services would use smaller buses. The minibus-taxi would be phased out, but taxi associations could form companies to bid for operating contracts.

The strategy described some interim stages, including services for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, but “the longer-term vision until 2020 is to develop a system that places over 85% of a metropolitan city’s population within 1km of an integrated rapid public transport network trunk (road and rail) or feeder (road) corridor".

We are only a year from 2020, yet there is just a handful of BRT lines in cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. Cape Town has made some progress with an integrated system by way of its MyCiTi network, and in a separate but notable development Gautrain has entered the scene.

This is all that has been achieved on the ground in the decade since the approval of the public transport strategy in March 2007. Why has there been so little progress? One reason may be the lack of planning capacity. There are also suggestions that corruption in one form or another has inhibited implementation in more than one city.

There are also serious concerns about affordability. In a presentation at the opening session of the 2016 SA Transport Conference, the national treasury’s deputy director-general for intergovernmental relations commented: “Bus rapid transit has heralded a shift in thinking with attention to spatial transformation, has relatively good user satisfaction where it operates, but has however resulted in very high deficits.”

However, the primary reason for the lack of progress has been the need to incorporate the informal sector minibus taxi operators into the formal sector operation implied by integrated rapid public transport networks. This is critical; according to the most recent national household travel survey, some 67% of all public transport users are carried by minibus taxis.

The lack of progress in implementation of the existing public transport strategy must surely mean that, as we reach the 2020 end-state, it is time to develop a new version. This should begin from the reality of the predominance of the minibus taxi. Like or loathe it, it is there, and if it were to disappear tomorrow our cities would grind to a halt.

One response from Business Day readers (and correspondents) might be that the apparent widespread traffic violations of the taxi drivers should be addressed. That is a perfectly rational view,  though we must remember that in a road space little more than that taken up by the single-occupant private car, the taxi can be carrying (legally) more than 20 people.

A possible approach has been suggested by the transport department in its draft green transport policy, published in August 2017: “Infrastructure must be innovatively upgraded to allow the minibus taxi industry … to utilise the BRT-only lanes.”

That is a possible tactic, and might be expanded to cover a range of dedicated priority measures for the taxi. But the broader need is for a new public transport strategy to take account of the situation in 2020, including the concept of mobility as a service (as demonstrated by e-hailing services such as Uber) and changes in work patterns as we enter the fourth industrial revolution.

A kick-start to this new analysis might be provided by an upcoming report of the Competition Commission. This body has been carrying out a market inquiry into the public transport market, and its report is due later this year. Whatever its findings and recommendations, the commission’s report should surely offer the opportunity for a thorough review of public transport in our cities.

• Browning is an independent public transport analyst.