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I say “sustainability”, you say “environment”? You’re not alone if that’s the case, but there’s so much more to sustainability than that. It’s a multi-layered concept, with several distinct environmental, economic and societal targets to meet by 2030, shaped by the UN into 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). Greenhouse gases aside, it’s also one of the hottest topics globally: how to make the 17 SDGs actionable in business. In the second leg of the TimesLive Dialogues, moderated by Joanne Joseph in partnership with the Gautrain Management Agency (GMA) – the government agency serving as custodian of the Gautrain – I chatted to GMA CEO William Dachs about just this.

The Gautrain has long been envisioned as more than a transport project, from the time when the world was still focused on the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals, which served as a precursor to the SDGs. This dovetails nicely into what we do at Kantar, in measuring the SDGs across 35 categories and 35 countries.  Some of the highlights of what is important are shown below.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

In SA the focus is on issues such as hunger, sanitation and education – if I don’t even have food on the table, how can I worry about higher-order issues like climate change? But before we delve into the detail, is it more environmentally friendly to catch a train than to take your car to work? The answer is unequivocally yes.

Railways have a central role to play in decarbonising transport as the backbone of any future sustainable transport system. To travel by train uses roughly 60g of carbon dioxide emissions per km, compared with 133g/km by car – with added impact if you consider a train’s passenger capacity compared with each car typically holding just one or at most four persons. The knock-on impact of commuting by train is therefore immense as we join the movement away from “single-use anything”.

That’s where personal choice comes in. Consider the fact that the average commuter travels 30km to the office. That racks up 2.8kg more carbon dioxide emissions from a car than from the train for every trip, every day. So, it’s a myth that individual actions don’t make a difference to sustainability. Over 170-million passenger trips have been taken on the Gautrain, which implies 170m individual choices to use public transport – testament to the benefits of an efficient rail system.

Here’s how that efficiency taps into the SDGs.

SDG 1. No poverty: While the Gautrain is available to all, there’s no denying it comes at a price. So, while the current price of petrol makes it a more appealing option than sitting in traffic for two hours to travel from Pretoria to Joburg, not everyone can afford that fare. That’s why subsidies are being introduced, along with discounts for off-peak travel and ideas in the works about targeted fair pricing based on geographic location to increase affordability and accessibility. This goes beyond sustainability – it’s a necessity.

SDG 3. Good health and well-being: With walking being the most under-rated form of exercise, walking to and from stations would be great for the nation’s overall health. But people need to feel safe doing so to make this behavioural change. That’s a very big “but”, because our country is so riddled with crime that many would rather drive. On the converse, many feel safer once they’re on the Gautrain, with security at the doors, rather taking than the risk of a smash-and-grab or hijacking on the roads. It’s the “last mile’” concept in action: if the last stretch doesn’t feel safe, people won’t take on the countless other miles leading to it. GMA has therefore experimented with bicycles in Hatfield and worked with city improvement districts to make the precincts around the stations safer. This in turn leads to sustainable economic growth, with Rosebank’s boom as a city node over the past decade serving as proof.

SDG 4. Quality education: if you can’t physically get to school, how will you get your education? Scholars can travel solo by train from the age of 12, with students another key market, as they’re making travel choices now that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. They also qualify for a 25% student discount.

SDG 5. Gender equality: The stereotypical view of train driver being an occupation for males is flipped on its head at the GMA. It boasts a majority female workforce, with focus on training and developing female train drivers and a push for more women in technical areas of engineering.

SDG 8. Decent work and economic growth: The GMA has sustainably created 12,000 jobs annually, both internally and throughout the supply chain in this hi-tech industry. It has also supported SMMEs and black-owned businesses for almost R5bn in the past decade, covering everything from security to cleaning and hi-tech maintenance of the trains and buses.

SDG 10. Reduced inequality: Workers travelling from Soweto to Sandton come in via Joburg, making their typical commute 2.5 to three hours. There’s clearly a need for a more efficient, more direct transport mode. But it’s not sustainable to put more people into cars. In addressing lack of access to the train based on geographical location, Gauteng faces the twin evils of environmental harm and congestion. It’ll take a tripling of the rail network length over the next 50 years to make a serious dent in this, but a 32km extension has already been planned over the next five years from Sandton to Randburg, Cosmo City and Little Falls and through Roodepoort to Jabulani in Soweto before heading north through Tshwane to Mamelodi and other high-density areas.

SDG 11. Sustainable cities and communities: Cars are so last season. But in a country where many have not enjoyed generational wealth, we need to convince both Gen Z experiencing the joy of owning a car for the first time and older generations who love their luxury vehicles to rather use public transport. It can be done. Just look at cities like New York and London, where public transport is so efficient many don’t see the need to own a car. Future cities like Neom in Saudi Arabia are taking this a step further. In designing the whole city around a sustainable mindset, businesses are based in a central hub and rail is a predictable way to get to work with the commute capped at 15 minutes.

SDG 12. Responsible consumption and production: In addition to being the cleanest and greenest form of mass transport, trains are quiet, and overall a less stressful way of getting from point A to point B, with time to unwind and catch up on your reading. The black swan event of Covid meant the GMA had to rebuild consumer confidence in their changed market, as many people simply couldn’t work from home and didn’t own cars. That heightened need for trains to be clean and safe was met by cleaning crews sterilising each touchpoint, demonstrating tangible pride at being part of a world-class system. The carriages still look new after about 12 years and staff continue to treat commuters with respect – something SA welcomes.

SDG 17. Partnership for the goals: Efficient transport systems create sustainable cities through partnerships that reduce running costs. The real sweet spot in partnerships comes from shared value. This is based on buy-in from the wider industry, as you’re seen to collaborate rather than compete, which promotes societal harmony and a better business environment for all. Win-win! The Gautrain is doing so by partnering with minibus taxi organisations around the Marlboro, Hatfield and Centurion stations. Having already transported 1-million passengers in branded 22-seaters and assisted with ticketing, it is essentially solving the last-mile quandary by extending the “Gautrain experience”. The GMA is keen to share these learnings and serve as an instrument of change in other public transport nodes.

Putting sustainability into practice means you’re futureproofing your business, factoring in the needs of today for a better tomorrow. For the Gautrain, this means providing the best possible standard for commuters by understanding what they need and innovating with solutions to their obstacles. The concept of renting, reusing and repurposing is fundamental to sustainability, so for commuters, this basic need boils down to offering seamless mobility as a service. It’s also an example of the circular economy at play – proving your sustainability makes it easier to access green finance, which is offered at a lower rate by international financiers looking to support businesses creating a more sustainable world.

Replay the conversation in full and get in touch to find out about Kantar’s Sustainability Index and how we can help you create a new world where purpose fuels profit, which in turn fuels more impact.

Karin Du Chenne is chief growth officer, Middle East & Africa, insights division at Kantar

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