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Joburg's Transit Breakthrough

News story by Gail Jennings, Johannesburg

Informal ‘jitney’ associations transcend their warload past to become shareholders in South Africa’s first-ever Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system

JOHANNESBURG – Waiting, waiting, without facilities, still waiting, crammed, hemmed in, no brakes, no license, angry club-wielding drivers fighting for the most lucrative routes.  Weaving haphazardly through traffic at often frightening speeds. .. Scrabbling for the right coins, late, confusion, music that leaves your ears ringing, fists, bullets, escape... The stories travellers tell of their minibus taxi adventures.

Bus Rapit Transit in JohannesburgThis sort of  informal, unscheduled and unregulated taxi system still exists in most of Johannesburg.

But the 25km link between the central business district and Soweto with its 1.4 million residents is now plied by sleek red buses travelling on time and on schedule. Three years ago, the government launched Rea Vaya (“we are going”), South Africa’s first bus rapid transit system (BRT).  Rea Vaya has replaced the ramshackle minibuses with modern vehicles and an entirely different, formal operating system.

Transformation

For many commuters, it’s been a life-altering shift.

Says Selinah Ndlovu, a shop assistant in Soweto: “I work in Joburg CBD and I have been taking taxis for the past 14 years. But since the inception of Rea Vaya, I stopped using taxis and the main reason is violence. That is the real motive.  Nobody told me, I have witnessed it myself.  At some stage, I almost lost my life when the taxi I was travelling in was ambushed and shot at. I am a single mother of three.  What were my children going to eat if I died that day?  I really thank the government for this Rea Vaya thing.  From my personal experience, it truly made a difference in my life.”                          

John Masuku, a 25-year-old street trader, adds: "I grab Rea Vaya just close to my house and I think it is peaceful, cheap and comfortable.... Once we didn't have a choice because there was no other means of transport. Now that we have Rea Vaya, I am happy.”

Strategic Decisions

Still, the observant commuter may notice a key link to the past, one that speaks to the skilled negotiations and strategic, innovative business model that has given Rea Vaya a real chance at success. Almost every Rea Vaya driver is a former mini-bus taxi driver, who has traded in his informal job for formal employment, with the concomitant rights and security that goes with it.

Early in the last decade, Johannesburg transportation officials made a strategic decision to build a public transit system that wouldn’t be government owned and operated.

“Our approach was to offer the taxi industry the honest opportunity to participate,” says transport economist Bongani Kupe, who worked to negotiate the agreement between the city and the taxi industry. “In the end they did not move into this because of fear or insecurity,” Kupe says. “ Their interest in the BRT is simply this: will I be able to make a profit?”

A heavy dose of courage, far-sightedness and a real desire for positive change lay behind this strategy.   The taxi associations wield considerable clout. The industry’s genesis was the urbanizing 1980s, when ‘influx control’ regulations were repealed in South Africa and Africans were permitted to live in the cities.

Initially owner-drivers, followed by taxi fleets and councils, provided the means for workers to travel the apartheid spatial divide; until recently, very little economic activity took place in Soweto itself.

The minibus operators formed associations, and the brutal turf battles and strikes that followed cost the economy as well as the lives of both drivers and passengers.

Regardless of politics, more than two-thirds of Soweto commuters relied on this poor-quality yet customer-driven network, and the taxi system represented a potent economic force.

Finding a Solution

Johannesburg officials came to see that any effort to change how residents got from point A to point B would need to accommodate the taxi associations.  As they looked for a solution, they found one in Colombia, South America. The cities of Bogota and Pereira had gone through their own shift from informal private operators to a more structured bus rapid transit system.

In 2006, Johannesburg taxi association leaders and city officials toured the TransMilenio, the BRT service in both cities.  The next year, the parties signed an agreement that gave the taxi associations ownership and jobs while leaving key operational decisions over routes and schedules in the government’s hands.

“I’ve always had a view that the [taxi] industry is unfairly maligned in South Africa,” says Councillor Rehana Moosajee, City of Joburg’s ANC-led Mayoral Committee Member for Transport, and BRT champion. “The industry has grown in the absence of government subsidy, in response to the commuting needs of a large part of the population. It’s the result of an entrepreneurial spirit, so Rea Vaya was just another opportunity to graduate to something much bigger.”

Benefits

At its simplest, BRT is a bus that has its own road. It’s cheaper than rail, as it doesn’t require tracks or power systems.  Rumble strips and delineators discourage general traffic from encroaching into the bus ways, which give the buses right of way.

The 143 vehicles now in operation burn low-sulphur fuel and cater, beyond regular commuters, to people in wheelchairs, the elderly, and people with sight and hearing disabilities. Unlike many of the minibus taxis, Rea Vaya does not charge overweight or disabled people twice the fare, nor do they forbid women in mini-skirts.  Eating and loud music are not permitted, though.  The buses are fitted with CCTV cameras and tracking devices linked to a control center.

Tickets cost, at most, two thirds of the taxi fare, routes are clearly marked, and some 30,000 daily commuters are kept updated of new services, changes or delays on Facebook and Twitter.  For new users unused to purchasing tickets (the mini-bus system was cash-based) there is a kind of industrial theater available through mobile devices that practically everyone carries (because of poor land line networks).  Actors demonstrate how to use the system, including buying a ticket through the electronic vending machines.

Crucial Buy-In

Nine taxi associations and over 500 association members bought into the first phase of Rea Vaya. The government financed their ownership stake in part through a taxi recapitalisation scheme, whereby taxi owners allowed their vehicles to be scrapped and handed in their operating licences.

The typical association member now either drives a bus or holds another job within the Rea Vaya system.  Taxi association leaders sit on the board of directors.  The South African government’s investment has been high -- upwards of $245 million.

Not every taxi association has signed on and from the very first bus runs there have been shootings.  As recently as last year, two incidents left seven people wounded and one dead.  Now, the government is into the next phase to expand Rea Vaya and negotiations are underway with those who see the system as an economic threat.

Road Ahead

The long-term plan is for Rea Vaya routes to cover 330 kilometers, enabling at least 80 percent of Johannesburg residents to catch the bus.

Eric Motshwane, chair of the Greater Johannesburg Regional Taxi Council and now director of corporate affairs for the company that owns Rea Vaya (Pio Trans),  says that in 2007, he didn’t foresee the success of the negotiations, but was willing to be open minded. Motshwane trusts the associations responsible for the 1,200 taxis still on the streets will sign on quickly.  “They are now faced with the same challenge we had,” he says, “and will be going back to their members with changed minds and eating humble pie.”

As John Masuku (25), a street trader, puts it: "I grab Rea Vaya just close to my house and I think it is peaceful, cheap and comfortable. All of us grew up in this country travelling in taxis, but we got fed-up by these guys' violent manners. Eish, these guys really think they are the bosses of the road.  But they can even own 200% of this project as long as they leave us in peace. Once we didn't a choice because there was no other means of transport. Now that we have Rea Vaya, I am happy.”

Gail Jennings is a South African urban and transport policy researcher and writer, and editor of MOBILITY magazine.

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