Jerom Theunissen Photography


October 4-9

City in Context

The Gauteng province of South Africa represents the industrial, financial and governmental core of South Africa, accounting for 33.9% of South Africa’s GDP, and 10% of the total GDP of the African continent. As South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng accounts for the bulk of all employees’ remuneration in the country, at a whopping 47.7% and is an economic powerhouse in the fields of manufacturing, energy production, construction, finance, transport, and wholesale and retail trade. However, transportation infrastructure has not kept pace with the continued economic and population growth in the province. The National Household Travel Survey, conducted by the South African Department of Transport in 2014 indicates that severe problems exist for citizens across the province regarding accessibility, cost, and safety of public transportation. In addition, economic growth and vast wealth in the province has not resulted in an equitable distribution of resources for all citizens. Poverty, inequality, and unemployment remain serious challenges in Gauteng. Official unemployment is roughly 22% in the province, while one-third of its citizens live below the poverty line. Across South Africa income is severely polarized between the rich and the poor, and Gauteng is no exception with regard to levels of inequality.

Mobility under the rule of South Africa’s white minority was where travel patterns shaped a generation. Scholar Meshack M. Khosa has said that the "South African passenger transportation system was by and large designed for daily transportation of labor to and from the workplace." Among other social costs, apartheid left a legacy of social exclusion and artificial separation of people when it came to transport and land use planning; Places of work, social services and other trip generators required to live a productive life were separated by race. As such transport became the medium through which popular struggles and a dramatic expression of tensions and disputes over control, management and affordability of racially divided spaces were discussed.

Mobility and human settlement patterns in the Gauteng City-Region (GCR) are characterized by the spatial distribution of race and income. Decades of segregation and low-density sprawl led to spatial fragmentation of Gauteng, creating long-distance travel patterns for trips from home to places of work, shopping, education, etc. Trip duration is further affected by inconsistent and unpredictable traffic congestion, limited access to public transport, and indirect arrangement of transport infrastructure. The result is an urban geography of a dual nature: an elite class living in ‘developed’ areas of the city using cars, while in the poorest areas people use a combination of travelling by foot, bicycle, minibus, bus, taxi, commuter train, and sometimes cars or trucks. These large difference in trip duration is embedded in the divided city; residents living in more central (and previously white dominated) areas spend less time on their daily travel than those in previously black areas, new housing developments and the outer reaches of the province.

When it comes to travel patterns, GCR’s sprawling urban form and inadequate public transport lead to stark differences in residents’ mode choices. (See a map at this link). Taxis are the most common mode in 332 (65%) of the province’s 508 wards; cars in 163 wards (32%); walking in 11 wards (2%) and trains in only 2 wards. Socioeconomic and historical factors influence the dominance of road-based modes, primarily cars and taxis. Wealthier, more central wards with easy access to economic opportunity tend to be dependent on cars; poorer wards located further away rely on taxis. Wards where walking is the dominant mode are situated in peripheral areas, with the notable exception being Hillbrow in Johannesburg’s inner city. Hillbrow indicages that walking in high-density areas can be viable in the city’s urban mobility spectrum.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, government investment in public transport was severely limited in the Gauteng region. This led to large numbers of citizens depending on informal taxi services, the private automobile, and overall poor levels of accessibility to public transport. Since South Africa won the the bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010, new infrastructure has been utilized to develop a safe, convenient, and accessible PT network for visitors and commuters in the region. Expanded and improved bus networks will promote greater use of public transport and may also result in fundamental shifts in settlement patterns and densities in the province. For example, Johannesburg’s Corridors of Freedom project seeks to create opportunities for residents to live in dense corridors serviced by its Rea Vaya BRT system. The Gautrain commuter rail line has made rapid travel between major commercial nodes across the region possible since its introduction for the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Unfortunately, the GCR offers little infrastructure for active transport. Bicycle lanes have been rolled out steadily, including in the Sandton ward. However, development is ocurring at nowhere near the pace required to make cycling as a viable alternative mode of transport. For pedestrians, more work has to be done to improve and maintain sidewalk and non-motorized transport infrastructure as well.

The Gautrain station at Midrand.

Gautrain - Africa’s First Rapid Rail Transit Line

Rail transport in South Africa has been plagued by issues of safety and reliability in recent years (see my Cape Town post). Thus, when a proposal to introduce a rapid rail project designed to international standards of safety, comfort, reliability and efficiency to carry 100,000 passengers per day, regional stakeholders were keen to explore feasibility of such a project. The proposal, called Gautrain, offers a high speed commuter rail service to passengers, covering over 80 km of track on the corridor between Johannesburg and Pretoria and a link to OR Tambo International Airport. The first phase of the project was completed in 2010, in time for the FIFA World Cup. The project is a Public-Private-Partnership and includes a 15-year maintenance and operating period after construction. Following an international tender process, the Gauteng Provincial Government awarded the project to the Bombela Concession Company consisting initially of Bombardier Transportation UK Ltd, Bouygues Travaux Publics SA, Murray & Roberts Ltd and SPG Concessions Ltd. Latterly ABSA Capital and the J&J Group have also taken up equity stakes in the Bombela Concession Company. Bombela’s obligations in the partnership ‘include the design, construction, part-financing, operation and maintenance of the system’, and the agreement lasts over a ‘54 month construction and development period followed by a 15.5 year operating and maintenance period'. The operations are led by RATP Development – the transit operator responsible for public transport in Paris and its surroundings. I was interested in learning more about the project from a critical perspective, including benefits, limitations, and problems of the Gautrain.

Project Benefits

The project’s objectives are multi-faceted and offer several benefits. In terms of alleviating road traffic congestion, the project runs along the NA1 Ben Schoeman freeway: one of the most congested freeways in the country. According to the Gauteng government, “Traffic congestion on the N1 Freeway is currently estimated to cost more than 300 million rand per year, including production time lost during travelling time, higher transport costs and above average accident rates. Furthermore, traffic congestion impacts negatively on quality of life.” Another objective of the project is to spur socio-economic development. Provisions in the PPP contract stipulate that the private sector offer local job creation, black empowerment, and the employment of historically disadvantaged groups.

  • 10,310 local people were employed, while the contract only required 5046.
  • 9345 historically disadvantaged individuals were employed, while the contract only required 3851.
  • 593 women were employed, while the contract only required 298..
  • 52 people with disabilities were employed, while the contract only required 47.

The third benefit and objective of Gautrain’s development was to stimulate transit-oriented development (TOD) around stations and to stimulate economic activity and development in the province of Gauteng. Furthermore, there are potential economic spin-offs in the way of residential and office booms around individual Gautrain stations. In the project’s  Environmental Impact Assessment, it is estimated that the project will contribute one percent to the GDP of Gauteng. As such, the new line serves as the backbone for economic development, especially in the areas along the corridor in which the Gautrain runs.

Project Drawbacks

Critical analysis of the Gautrain reveals several potential problems with the project. Firstly, the project deepens mobility-related exclusion in the province, as noted by the Portfolio Committee on Transport: “The location of the rail-line is remote from most of the major townships in Gauteng, and there has been very little consideration of ensuring connectivity with the major modes of transport used by township dwellers in Gauteng.” The National Spokesperson for the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Patrick Craven said the following in 2011:

“It [the Gautrain] will actually, if anything, reinforce spatial distinctions because it will serve what were previously all white areas, where still only a minority of black people probably live . . .And it is precisely the former black areas that are still so badly served by the existing transport system.”

The second problem with the project is the considerable amount of public funding allocated to benefit relatively wealthy commuters within the region. Simultaneously, forms of public transport for the poor are receiving little to no funding. As indicated in the National Transport survey, the lack of safe, accessible, and effective public transport is a serious issue for residents of Gauteng. Public spending on a project designed for the wealthy, when funding is desperately needed to improve mobility for the poor majority, raises important questions regarding the province’s willingness to address the issue of mobility-related exclusion and the appropriateness of investing in the Gautrain at a time when funding other transportation priorities are more urgent. These questions are all the more relevant when looking at the cost overruns; when feasibility studies and cost-benefit analyses were conducted, the estimate of the cost to build the Gautrain was R 7 billion, but after completion it cost about R 30 billion.This is quite expensive given that roughly 100,000 commuters will benefit, while the national budget for transport in 2005 makes allocations for “existing and ailing passenger rail infrastructure of R100 million for 2006/7 and R250 million for 2007/8.” To compare, these existing rail lines serve 7 million South Africans.

Another major concern with Gautrain is that other options were not adequately explored prior to the discussion to begin the project. A dedicated bus lane, electric trolleybuses, or a light rail system could have adequately served the demand along the proposed route at a fraction of the cost. Romano Del Mistro, an urban transport expert at the University of Cape Town argues that passengers travelling via bus on dedicated bus lanes could potentially travel between Tshwane and Johannesburg in 69 minutes, compared to 60 minutes on the Gautrain, but the cost would far less (Stephen 2005).

Lessons Learned

With these problems in mind, one has to wonder how a project of this cost and limited impact was able to be approved, implemented and continued? As with many transportation-related issues around the world (just look at NYC, Istanbul, or London), it comes down to political symbolism. In the case of Gautrain, the project’s approval was linked with the desire of the government in power to leave a legacy in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Premier of Gauteng at the time of approval, Mbhazima Shilowa, was seen by some as a personal undertaking of the premier, and is often referred to as the “Shilowa Express.” What’s more, there was a desire to brand South Africa as the modern African state, with a flashy, modern, fast train as the symbol of progress and advancement. This quest for ‘modernity’, and for a legacy project, may have clouded the judgement of Shilowa and others who initially approved the Gautrain project. The lesson learned here is to look beyond the initial allure of megaprojects and the politics that come with it. The fact that the planning and implementation of the Gautrain survived three elections and five Cabinets of the ruling ANC party indicates that political will and advanced government action have been a necessary element in the project, despite the absence of justifiable cost–benefit considerations during the planning. Perhaps the missing link is a political champion who will take up the mantle of resolving a major transportation problem in the country caused by the apartheid legacy of spatial separation.

Visit to Uber HQ: South Saharan Africa

While in Johannesburg, I had the opportunity to speak with two people at Uber's office: Alon Lits and Mosa Mkhize.

Alon Lits

Alon is General Manager for Uber in Sub Saharan Africa, and has been managing Uber's operations on the subcontinent for 3 years. Prior to that, Alon helped head up Uber’s operations in Johannesburg, the first city in Africa the ride-hailing company started with in 2012. Uber now operates in several other cities in sub-Saharan Africa, including Nairobi, Mombasa, Lagos, Abuja, Kampala, Accra and Dar es Salaam. We spoke about Uber’s particular vision and strategy for moving forward in South Africa. I was keen to hear how a company with a global understanding of mobility localized its services to fit the needs of its clients.

The first hurdle was to accompany the preference of cash for fare payments both by drivers and riders. Alon noted that Uber only offered a bank card payment option at first, locking out customers who either didn’t have cards or were unwilling to use them. In Kenya, mobile money is often the next option when they cannot use cash, and this too was unavailable on Uber’s platform. When asked about the challenge of how to collect Uber’s service fee from drivers, Lits explained that Uber collects its share from fares paid by card users, while the driver gets to keep the cash collected. In this manner, Uber breaks down a barrier for taking the first trip and caters to the preferences of its riders. Alon pointed out that after the first few rides, users “convert into a card user once they trust the system.”

The second hurdle involves the recruitment of local teams to understand what works in each city. Alon says that Uber goes to great lengths to recruit new users and build loyalty in the region. For drivers, Greenlight Hubs are created to inform new drivers about how to sign up for Uber. These hubs also double as event spaces. In July 2018, Uber invited 100 of its drivers to attend the Nelson Mandela annual lecture, and streamed the event live to five of its greenlight hubs in South Africa. In this vein, Uber has gone to great lengths to recruit new users and build loyalty in the region. It has formed partnerships to raise its visibility as a viable mobility alternative in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Moving forward, Alon and his team looks to expand to more Sub-Saharan African cities soon. Using data to make business decisions, their launch teams look at several factors when deciding to bring Uber to market, including smartphone penetration, the state of the existing taxi market, and the existence (or lack of) a regulatory framework concerning transport network companies (TNCs). 

Mosa Mkhize

On the topic of regulation and public policy, the conversation turned to Mosa Mkhize, Senior Associate of Public Policy, to discuss the relationship Uber has with local and national governments. She says her job comes down to informing governments of the significant economic and social impacts it’s business brings to local markets in the form of 24/7 transport service and empowerment of historically disadvantaged groups, a real problem in Africa’s mobility mix. Mosa said the company is working hard in Africa to achieve its target of economically empowering no fewer than one million women across the world by 2020.

On regulation, Alon and Mosa talked about recent amendments proposed to South Africa’s National Land Transport Act (NLTA) No 5. The act is currently under review, but is a landmark moment for recognition of TNC companies in South Africa. For the first time, amendments include ridesharing and e-hailing operators and drivers as legitimate participants in the country’s public transport system. Mosa was heartened by this step because the amendments proposed by Uber were taken to heart by policymakers and sets the stage for further digitization of the transport sector in South Africa. However, there are aspects of the proposed amendments that are worrisome for Uber and its partners. Namely, the new regulatory changes (Section 66 (7) and Section 66A) call for financial penalties to be paid (some as high as R100 000 or around $7000) by operators and rideshare companies who are found to be transporting passengers without a legal permit issued by the relevant local authority. Unfortunately, Mosa told me that the operating permit issuance system in South Africa needs reform. The processes for operating licenses are subject to extensive delays, sometimes over a year in length. If the bill were to pass in its current form, its drivers would have to confront the possibility of either having to operate illegally while waiting for permit approval and risking significant fines and/or arrest, or stopping operations and losing a significant source of income.

The challenges brought forth by the new regulations have seen Mosa and her team call for a delay in implementing the amendment while the government has time to sort out the permitting system. If the law is passed as it currently stands, the amendments will prevent South Africans from having full access to the range of convenient transport options they deserve, and the economic and social benefits which come along with it. In all of my travels, I have seldom seen cities with limited transport options further limit services for users. In the case of South Africa, I think city governments should be in charge, with national government promoting more options to exist in the mobility mix of cities. In this manner, city governments can opt for solutions more catered to local needs and use intelligent policies to limit oversaturation of the market. In South Africa’s case, the governance structure seems to have things the other way around, and fails to recognize the value added by ride share services that can break down mobility-induced barriers raised by the status-quo.

Parting Thoughts

What is needed to change transport and land use planning to improve mobility patterns across the Gauteng city region?

In terms of transport, there is a lot to be done. There is no holistic transport system in Gauteng or anywhere in South Africa. Existing formal public transport is fragmented and inadequate in terms of both route coverage and frequency, and has failed to keep up with urban expansion, especially of informal settlements. And with no integrated ticketing, scheduling, marketing or branding, and different operators offering different services under different sets of rules, users do not perceive formal public transport to be a coherent product. Thankfully, the Rea Vaya BRT system is being extended to increase accessibility in historically segregated areas. Use of innovative financing mechanisms, such as green bonds, to fund green infrastructure projects are commended and should be expanded for use on non-motorized transport infrastructure as well.

Land use patterns could also be improved. Due to sprawling low-density areas without viable public transport systems, the average work commute is 52 minutes, and is worsened by unpredictable traffic congestion during peak hours. These patterns reinforce the need for an automobile as the mode of choice. Transit-oriented development incentives exist for Gautrain and Rea Vaya stations, but it is unclear if they are being applied across the city. The biggest exception is Sandton, a wealthy mixed-use development around a Gautrain station, which used TOD to unlock higher intensity development. The Precinct is characterised by high intensity mixed use development and is seen as the financial hub of Johannesburg. More should be done to connect highly-dense and low-income areas of the city with opportunity areas like Sandton and the CBD.

A taxi rank lined with minibuses, waiting for the evening rush hour to begin.

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