Jerom Theunissen Photography

Cape Town

September 30 - October 4 

City in Context

Cape Town, with its coming-together of geographies,cultures, and cuisines, is a beautiful city crowned by Table Mountain National Park, which dominates the skyline. In terms of culture, you’d be hard-pressed to find a city as diverse as Cape Town, home to many religious and racial groups. And of course, in terms of transport, I wanted to visit the city to see how it is overcoming the challenges associated with post-apartheid development in a culturally and geographically divided city.

Like many other cities I have visited, central business districts and urban agglomerations became necessary to bring people together in the same physical space to work and to do business. This modus operandi persists today in Cape Town. As the city grows, most settle in the only space available: townships.  The State of South African Cities Report 2016 found that Cape Town was the only city in South Africa where the proportion of people living in informal settlements had increased in the previous five years. This has left city and provincial governments, including Cape Town’s, not only dealing with issues related to lack of investment, regulatory complexity, NIMBYism, but also the unique challenge of overcoming the spatial segregation left by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

The legacy of apartheid has far reaching consequences for the future development of urban transport in South African cities. Before 1994,housing for black South Africans was typically was located far outside of cities and had poor transport links. This trend has had long-term effects for residents of the Cape Town metropolitan area, proving difficult to reverse. Although transport has been improved, Cape Town’s urban form remains ‘mono-modal’ – with the majority of jobs in the city center and the majority of housing in the periphery. The nature of this mobility pattern, together with rapid motorization, growth in population and a lack of substantial investment in the capacity of the public transport system over the last few decades, has led to unprecedented levels of congestion in the metropolitan Cape Town area. In fact,Cape Town is the most congested city in South Africa. The majority of this congestion is caused by vehicles with single occupants (approximately 80% of the total in the peak travelling to the CBD) and results in increased levels of harmful emissions that contribute both to local air pollution and climate change.

To address this problem, the 2032 City Vision plans to integrate different modes of public transportation to form a seamless system.The city will also invest in technologies to facilitate a convenient, secure, cost-effective fare system that works across all modes. Another challenge is the low share of active modes; despite having 450 kilometers of cycle lanes across the city,very few people use bicycles to get around. As part of the city’s 2016 Transport Demand Management Strategy, the city is promoting carpooling, car sharing, and bike sharing to reduce congestion. 

Land Use Planning in Cape Town – Recent Developments and Applications to Transport.

The natural point of entry for knowledge pertaining to urban development in South African cities took me to the University of Cape Town(UCT). While there, I spoke with three researchers to tease out the state of affairs when it comes to urban transportation in South Africa. The first researcher I spoke with was Dr. Nancy Odendaal, a professor of urban planning at UCT and is a member of the African Center for Cities, an interdisciplinary research group. Nancy and I spoke about governance of planning in Cape Town. She pointed to the Spatial Development Framework, which looks 10-20 years in to the future of Cape Town’s urban settlements. The most recent iteration of the framework is to put transport at the center of urban development via a comprehensive transit-oriented development strategy.

As promising as the plan is, Dr. Odendaal laments that politics can get quite sticky when it comes to executing the plan. She explained that developments in Cape Town are not without provincial and national government involvement. The city is controlled by Democratic Alliance politicians, who run on the platform of local government decentralization.Meanwhile, the national government also sets initiatives at the national level via the National Land Transportation Act. Sometimes, initiatives brought forth by the national government conflict with the interests of cities, presenting an impasse when it comes to transport development at the local level.

The most acute example of this in Cape Town is the case of the urban rail service provided by national rail operator, PRASA. Dr. Roger Behrens, Director of the Center for Transport Studies, told that passenger rail services in Cape Town is in crisis. Train sets are being gouged for their copper wiring, and some are even being set on fire and burned. 20 years ago,almost 100 locomotives and train sets were in operation. Today, it is estimated that 45 remain, with the majority being damaged, vandalized, or destroyed in the past few years.

Since then, Dr. Behrens explained, ridership via urban rail has halved due to unreliable service and the lack of safety. The state of the Western Cape has a performance contract with PRASA called Jibela. Trains now run on time merely 44% of the time, abysmal and unacceptable compared with other rail service providers around the world. With ridership undercut, the system is not collecting the revenue needed to sustain the level of service required by Cape Town’s swelling population. The vicious cycle has led more riders to switch to other modes- mainly road-based- causing more traffic on Cape Town’s strained roads.

Luckily, not all motorized modes of transport in Cape Town involve the private automobile. Dr. Behrens explained the recent situation with PRASA has proven to be lucrative for informal taxi and paratransit operators.These services can fit anywhere from five to fifteen people in their vehicles,operating on routes established with Cape Town’s licensing system. The system used to be radial, with taxi and paratransit operators allowed to operate within a certain distance of a point. This licensing system later switched to route-based systems dictating the number of taxis allowed to operate along a certain route.The network covers the entire city, although no formal maps exist (more on the people aiming to tackle this problem later in the post).

Other forms of public transit exist too. Synonymous with public transit in Cape Town are the Golden Arrow bus services, which operate longer distance routes from the city center to the greater Cape Town metropolitan area. This private bus company runs on a contract that is renewed by the provincial state government.  The latest entrant has been MyCiti, a bus service that is a component of a larger integrated rapid transit system that brings together all modes of transport in a coordinated fashion. I spoke more about MyCiti later on in the post.

A path forward for Mobility: TOD in the South African Context

So, with road demand higher than ever, what is the missing link to manage congestion while improving access to areas with high wages for all residents in and around Cape Town? The problem is particularly important to address in post-apartheid South Africa: inequitable distribution of access to opportunities and services have remained from the days of segregationist planning policies that fragment the urban form of South African cities.

In this context, PhD candidate and transportation expert Sean Cooke believes the answer lies in TOD, but not in the same way as American or European planners have envisaged it (on a precinct level and“network-agnostic”). Instead, TOD has to be part of a network overcoming apartheid legacy in space, changing the way people move. This can be achieved with changing the location of trip attractions, such as shops, schools, public services, and not just private sector business as is often pursued with TOD in Western contexts. South Africa and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have the potential to resolve enormous spatial challenges by adopting built environment characteristics that incorporate smart growth and has a positive influence on travel behavior. This is the promise of TOD in the South African context.

This excellent article by Sean covers his work about the relationship between TOD, Accessibility and Public Transport Viability in South African cities.

MyCiti Rapid Transit System & Integration with Informal Transport– A Conversation with Gershwin Fortune

In preparation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the South African government initiated an urban public transport reform program in 2006 with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems at the backbone. In 2011, the starting phases of BRT began in Cape Town, under the brand of MyCiti. BRT has been touted by its proponents as a relatively low-cost solution to ease congestion and improve public transportation services in a city. Buses are separated from free-flowing traffic, increasing the average speed of travel. Passenger loading times are reduced by ensuring fares are collected prior to boarding so all doors can be used. With these improvements, BRT can nearly approach the same capacities and speed as costlier rail services. 

This combination tempted officials in Cape Town. I had the great pleasure of speaking with one such official, Gershwin Fortune, who is the Commissioner for Cape Town’s Transport and Development Authority (TDA). Mr.Fortune has had years of experience in the transport sector, which began with an internship in the city’s transportation office. In 2002-03, he had the opportunity to work with the director of transport and traffic, and hasn't looked back since. Today, he is in charge of the TDA, Cape Town’s authority on matters relating to transport and the built environment. I was keen to hear his story about MyCiti’s development.

The new system had several benefits, according to Mr. Fortune. Firstly, the image of public transport was elevated to a totally new level in conjunction with the excitement of the World Cup. Uniform branding for public transport was created under the name of MyCiti. Second, tangible benefits to users were realized through reduced public transport trip times along the lines built; sometimes the route reduced the travel times by half. Thirdly, city officials observed more people left cars at home.

However, Mr. Fortune also lamented that the system’s drawbacks.The first among them is the reliance on a hub and spoke model which has MyCiti running feeder bus services to the main trunk routes. Riders generally prefer to minimize transfers and stay on one bus. The second problem was the push to subsidize informal transit and incorporate them in the MyCiti system has been more difficult than anticipated. Professor Behrens and his colleagues Herrie Schaelkamp and Pablo Salazar-Ferrero at UCT argue that this difficulty of formalizing the informal hinders efforts to expand services, build ridership, and reach public transportation-dependent users in low-income, densely populated townships like Khayelitsha, which is 20 miles southeast of downtown and home to over 500,000 residents. The third problem is dealing with poor urban form that is “mono-modal” and has buses frequently running full for long portions of the route with little people getting on or off in between.

These issues have led to concerns about financial stability of the MyCiti program.Since 2010, the city and federal governments have spent $20 million to operate MyCiTi, but generated only $4 million in revenues. Including infrastructure, the South African government has contributed nearly $900 million to build and run MyCiTi through its Public Transport Infrastructure and Systems Grant program. This money was used for the construction of pre-payment depots and the reengineering of roads. 

In the face of resistance from paratransit and taxi operators, perhaps the solution to sustainable urban mobility in South African cities like Cape Town is to take a hybrid approach: public transport operating high density trunk routes while the private players operate for the first- and last-mile legs of the journey. In this manner, synergies can be achieved that boost ridership and brings down operating costs for city governments and public transport providers. BRT has great potential to revolutionize the image and efficacy of public transport in the 21st century, but as the case of Cape Town has shown,sensitivity to city-specific contexts can be addressed by monitoring,revisiting and tweaking new models of hybrid public transport models.

Digitalisation of Minibus Taxi Transport– WhereIsMyTransport. Conversation with Emil Chitty

With a hybrid approach to public transport as the only means to sustainably serve Cape Town’s growing population, the role of the minibus taxi is vital to the city of Cape Town. On the national level, the taxi industry grew in response to mobility-induced exclusion in cities, and still today is the only mode of transport to many outlying areas. There are over 7,500 licensed taxis in the city, accounting for 15% of all trips taken, more than any other public transport mode. Users of the taxis rely on their knowledge and personal experience of the system, word-of-mouth, and the occasional signboard to figure out how to get where they’re going. There is no central source of information on the fares, routes, and frequency of the taxis. Enter WhereIsMyTransport.

The WhereIsMyTransport platform is an open platform for integrated public transport data in emerging cities. I spoke with Emil Chitty, a data scientist at the company. He told me that the platform already had data on every other mode of transport in Cape Town, but crucially,no information on taxi routes, fares, stops, and frequencies. Thus, Emil and his colleagues launched the Cape Town Taxi Project, making the data collected available through their platform to anyone who wants to build an app or website. Over the course of three weeks, WhereIsMyTransport’s data collectors captured over 1,000 routes, travelling 13,410 kilometers!

The findings are presented in a gorgeous map. Emil reflected that dozens of unknown routes were discovered or had simply vanished. This project shows the promise of digitization of transport in the 21st century, where a few weeks of data collection can reveal a previously hidden system to the world, and make users aware of routes that could potentially serve them better. The phrase, “information is power” rings true, especially in the area of urban transport.

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