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Tuesday Jun 18, 2013

SA's urban areas held ransom by public spend on roads

A world-class road network is nice to have, but we need to question the claim that it is enabling the economy to grow and is creating wealth (except maybe for the motor and road construction industry).

SA's urban areas have now degenerated into a condition known as "hypermobility" - where the benefits to individual car users are outweighed by the costs they impose on other road users.

The reality is that private motoring is dragging our economy down, not up. Cars cost at least R300 billion to run each year. Half of this is spent on getting to work, so that R150bn should be added to the cost of doing business in SA. Half of all SA workers now go to work by car (many of them Sherman tanks) - the other 50 percent go by public transport, which costs about R40bn. With the journey to work therefore eating up R190bn of our GDP, 80 percent of which is due to private vehicles, the economy is taking strain. We are told that car and component manufacturing employs 100 000 people, but it also accounts for nearly R50bn of our trade deficit (Business Day, April 5). That works out at R500 000 per employee. Perhaps they should all be doing something else!

Numbers like the above merely indicate that we are driving ourselves into poverty, but other economists, many of whom work for the motor industry or the banks, are welcome to do their best to deflect attention away from this harsh reality. A more pressing problem is that the Sanral article says nothing about the need to vastly improve public transport, which in turn would do away with the need for additional lanes on the freeway. It's as simple as that - and it applies in Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and everywhere else.

Other government departments are ahead of Sanral in this respect. Back in 2006, the DoT produced a report saying that:

"The public transport sector in South Africa in 2006 is at a strategic crossroads. Over the next decade it either remains a third class service for captive users and thus loses ridership to private cars - an unsustainable future, or it undergoes a phased overhaul (between 2007 and 2020) to form an integrated mass rapid network that is a viable, car competitive mobility option for all citizens in a city or district."

The 2006 report places much of the blame for the poor performance of public transport in SA on transportation engineers and consultants. Some of its observations are quoted below:

  • It has been 10 years since the White Paper on National Transport Policy (1996) committed Government to a thorough-going transformation of the land passenger transport sector. For a variety of reasons, the promise to transform and upgrade public transport, walking and cycling and to manage and control car use has not been adequately implemented during this time.

  • It is granted that the first important steps were taken in the late 1990s, but from a user perspective, these have either proved to be complicated and slow: as in taxi recapitalisation from 1999 to 2006, the establishment of only one (relatively under-funded and hence ineffective) Transport Authority from 2001 to 2006, and the only half-completed bus tendering system from 1998 to 2006. Or they have been ineffective and negligible - for example, public transport law enforcement - or the steps have been contrary to the spirit of policy; the roads authorities politely ignored the 1998 call to manage car use and to promote public over private transport. In short, the transport policy and strategy of 1996 to 2000 has so far not been effectively translated into practice.

  • The South African transport profession, both within and outside of government, still has a hangover from an ingrained car-oriented design bias of the past 40 years.

    Fast forward to 2011, when the National Transport Master Plan warned that "if planning and implementation are not done proactively, there is a significant risk that the economy will be severely affected and that especially the poorer echelons of society will be exposed to increased hardship as the cost of transportation becomes so high that it excludes them from access to jobs".

    Perhaps the cynics among us will respond by saying that higher levels of unemployment in the country will reduce the need for better public transport, but this is no time to be flippant.

    The research quoted by Sanral is irrelevant. Congestion indices and consumer pain studies tell us little. We need to implement the recommendations of the 2006 DoT study, which include the following:

  • The establishment of transport authorities.

  • Introducing city-wide formal public transport networks.

  • Operating services 16 to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

  • Introducing a "gross cost" contracting system which allows for through-ticketing.

  • Improving marketing, maps, timetables and image-building.

  • Doubling the financial assistance to public transport from its existing R5bn (this was in 2006) to R10bn. (Since 2006 the subsidy has escalated to around R15bn. This goes mainly to rail and bus services, both of which are giving us poor value for money. Minibus-taxis get a paltry R522 million.)

  • including the minibus taxi industry in the gross-cost contract system.

    All of these steps need to be underpinned by strong local public sector network control and management which the document concedes is "relatively weak" at present.

    So, can we fix this "ingrained hangover"? We need to take emergency action. All formal public transport needs to come under the control of a single body to achieve rationalisation of services. We could start appointing people who use public transport at least twice a week, to various bodies. These would include the board of Sanral, as well as other government-subsidised bodies such as Prasa and the bus companies. Senior government officials tasked with public transport matters could also leave their Sherman tanks at home for two days each week.

    We could continue by requiring our sleepy universities to teach public transport studies, even as part of the humanities and social sciences. The entry of the Catholic church into the debate should not be scoffed at - maybe even a theology degree should include a few lectures on urban transport!

    We lament the lack of engineers in our economy, but it doesn't help if they waste their precious time and education building unnecessary infrastructure. Rather let them build houses, while our universities should be teaching people how to use existing roads more efficiently.

    But while many of us are "reluctant to criticise economically unsound decisions, fearing that we will be excluded from further deals worth billions" (Sunday Times, November 25, 2012), the problem won't go away. Hopefully the Constitutional Court will take some of these issues into account.

    Vaughn Mostert
    A transport expert at the University of Johannesburg
    Saturday Star


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