Lack of Reliable Public Transportation in South Africa


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Public transportation in South Africa has been a significant issue dating back to the Apartheid Era in the 1990s. Safe, accessible and affordable public transportation infrastructure is fundamental for the socio-economic advancement of the country. However, the system of apartheid left a legacy of social and racial exclusion and a stark separation of people from their places of work and homes. This lack of reliable public transportation in South Africa has had an effect on the country’s socioeconomic development. Building fair and inclusive forms of public transportation for all South Africans has been an ongoing challenge.

Accessible Transportation Issues

The apartheid policies were founded upon racial segregation, which has resulted in a tricky urban geographic layout that makes it hard for cars, buses or trains to effectively reach many areas of the country. The policies have resulted in an elite class of people living in very developed areas with easy access to transportation and adequate infrastructure. On the other hand, those in poor, underdeveloped areas rely on transport options that often sacrifice reliability, safety and cost-effectiveness.

Good transportation is essential to a country’s development. Transportation is often between 6 percent and 12 percent of the GDP of many developed countries. To understand the lack of reliable public transportation in South Africa and the effect it has caused on socioeconomic development, it is important to look at the various types of transportation.

Minibus taxi

The minibus taxi is the most popular form of transportation in Cape Town. These vehicles provide a door-to-door service, which means more flexibility and convenience for many commuters. They are more abundant than trains, and drivers can be whistled down in nearly any part of the city or suburb. However, these drivers often operate without transportation licenses, and in some cases, drivers do not even have proper driving licenses.

The minibus industry does not have strict laws or rules to guide its activities, meaning driving patterns can be reckless or erratic, and drivers often cut off other drivers and commuter buses. Since they are not government regulated vehicles, passengers are taking a risk when they use minibusses because there is no effective way to enforce safe driving. Furthermore, there are no fixed rates for the prices of these taxis, which makes it easier for drivers to use bribery or change fares for riders at the drop of a hat.

Though they can also be very cheap modes of transportation, with fares that are normally about $0.70 or under, they are also cash only. Safety is the main concern when using minibus taxis as the recent taxi turf war has ramped up between drivers fighting over business and dominance of certain routes in Hout Bay, a suburb of Cape Town. These turf wars have led to a series of shootings, and in April 2019, there were five deaths of drivers and passengers in the span of two days.

Commuter Buses: MyCiti

There are two popular bus services used in the city of Cape Town; the first is MyCiti. MyCiti is a public transportation system that began in 2010 and is used in about 10 percent of the City. It is efficient and cost-effective for passengers who are closer to the city bowl of Cape Town. There are stops and stations around the city to major destinations.

MyCiti is a safer option than other forms of public transit because of the safety and surveillance cameras located in most buses. This form of transit offers more expensive fares but provides better safety and reliability. It also uses a card system to pay for fixed fares based on peak travel hours and distance traveled. The downloadable app makes it easy for users to add money to their “myconnect” card as well as find timetables and accessible routes based on their location.

Commuter Buses: The Golden Arrow

The Golden Arrow has contracts with the government, so it reaches more areas of the city of Cape Town and surrounding suburbs. Users can go on the website and find timetables and routes; however, they must find their own Golden Arrow bus stops. It is not as technologically savvy as the MyCiti bus because it does not have an app with real-time updates on bus arrival and departure times. This can make timing travel a bit unpredictable.

The Golden Arrow buses are often late, and since there are no real-time updates, passengers risk waiting around for a bus for a long time. In addition, the buses do not have safety cameras installed, leaving room for pick-pocketers and other criminals to find targets. Essentially, The Golden Arrow provides cheap options but sacrifices safety and reliability.

Metrorail Trains

Trains are a very cheap form of transportation in Cape Town. They are better for the environment because they can hold several people, cutting down on carbon emissions from multiple vehicles. Cape Town only uses one train provider, the Metrorail. For most routes, train riders can purchase tickets for the “MetroPlus” section, considered the first class car, for R9.50 or the regular “Metro” car for R7.

Passengers must be very aware of their surroundings on the train because they can be overcrowded and there are virtually no security measures. Muggings and robberies are frequent occurrences. The trains provide very cheap fares that reach long distances, and when they run on time, they are efficient to use. However, passengers often sacrifice safety and reliability because the Metrorail lacks structured efficiency despite the timetables on their website. A survey reported that trains either do not show up at all or they are very late. In fact, 37.8 percent of users claimed timetables were not even available.

Moving Forward

Barriers to mobility in South Africa have been reducing in the last ten years. Rural households had easier access to public transit and shorter travel times. Overall, the percentage of households who used taxis between 2003 to 2013 went from 59 percent to 69.8 percent, buses from 16.6 percent to 20.1 percent and trains from 5.7 percent to 9.9 percent. This indicates that more people are using public transportation. However, South African commuters still have to sacrifice safety, reliability or cost-effectiveness when making the best decision on what form of transit to use.

Fortunately, there are new initiatives being introduced to improve the lack of reliable public transportation in developing countries. The World Bank Spring Meetings in late April in Washington, D.C. featured the Sustainable Mobility for All Initiative. They have four pillars for global improvement, including universal access, efficiency, safety and green energy. Organizations such as U.N. Agencies, large business corporations and academic institutions are getting on board this ambitious initiative and donating money towards the worthy cause.

Public Transportation in South Africa is on the rise. Hopefully, initiatives like the Sustainable Mobility for All will help improve people’s access to public transportation and, in turn, the socio-economic status of the cities and towns where they are found.

Meredith Breda

Photo: Flickr


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