SA public transport is steeped in a history rarely told

Yolisa Kani
Yolisa Kani

The current state of public transport in South Africa is steeped in a history rarely told – and even more rarely understood. The daily transport and movement needs of our people are intricately woven into the legacy of the apartheid spatial planning regime that, even today, some 20-odd years later, has not changed much.

Combined with the rapid changes presented by evolving global and local navigation demands, it’s clear that there are both significant challenges and opportunities for empowered growth in the industry.

Dismantling the apartheid edifice is a complex business. Removing its legislation and replacing it with policies designed to uplift the majority is just the start, including undoing the pervasive effects of apartheid’s impact on this country’s spatial geography and its people.

The effects of historically unjust laws on transport are no exception; and a number of public transport solutions have, to a certain extent, met the needs created through these vastly fragmented spaces. The offering started with state-subsidised buses and trains, and then saw the flourishing of the privately owned minibus taxi in the late 1980s. This private sector offering has, historically, had a higher success rate.

Nevertheless, South Africa’s minibus taxi industry remains a popular target for scorn. But the industry’s vast scale makes it extraordinarily efficient in many ways.

Its sheer size might be inflated by the stagnation of other mass transit systems in South Africa, but every day, more than 15 million people are delivered to and from their places of work, schools and homes, generally on time and for a reasonable fare, by black-owned businesses.

By all accounts, the industry demonstrates a genuinely broad-based black economic empowerment. Made up of approximately 250 000 vehicles and employing as many as 600 000 people, the minibus taxi industry is one of the South African economy’s most underrated heroes.

It is possible to catch a minibus taxi, with connections, from pretty much any two disparate locations you care to think up. No other transport operator can match it in the current day.

Born out of necessity during the apartheid era, in the context of a regime that wanted black people in cities to only work for white families and businesses, and not be residents, the minibus taxi industry provided a daily service to transport these workers in and out of the CBD from distant dormitory townships.

The long shadow cast by the Group Areas Act is arguably apartheid’s most visible scar on our country and it continues to disadvantage people every single day due to the vast distances between millions of ordinary citizens and their places of work.

As such, commuting takes an hour on average and this exercise is repeated in the evening, robbing families of quality time together and a healthy lifestyle. The entire cost for travelling, including the time it takes to walk to the nearest public transport system, is yet to be quantified but, what is known for sure, however, is that the cost of travelling drains 40% of the commuter’s disposal income – at a bare minimum.

Fast forward to today, when we are seeing a growing trend for ride-sharing services. The purpose of the Uber app and other e-hailing platforms is based on the same premise – moving people from point A to point B – but they do so by drawing as much efficiency out of a car as possible.

In South Africa the Uber app has more than a million active users, and 25 000 people request a ride ten times or more a week. This speaks of real, organic demand, and raises the obvious questions: How can cities benefit from the ride-sharing applications and how can we all leverage technology to solve the mobility challenges we face in South Africa?

The benefits of new technology provide us with an opportunity to change the way people move through cities, to change the way we use government resources, including public spaces, and change the way we work.

New tech’s most significant social opportunity is how it can transform the lives of citizens by providing an opportunity to earn an income. And innovations specifically in the transport sector could see entire inner city buildings – currently used exclusively for parking – being converted into affordable residential and recreational spaces.

Principally, Uber is able to offer a safe, affordable and reliable service with the in-built accountability, and the added convenience and cost-efficiency of not having to buy, insure, maintain and park an owned vehicle. This is a step in the right direction, considering the high dependence on private cars in the country.

The next progressive step would be to inculcate the culture of sharing rides with two to three other people heading in the same direction. We unquestioningly sit next to strangers on long-haul flights; there’s no reason why we cannot share a short distance local trip. This would not only make the trip cheaper but also result in fewer cars on our busy roads.

Although the combination of reliability and convenience has attracted riders to Uber, the dramatically and consistently changing face of transportation means that we have to continue to offer services for the cities of the future, while working with regulators and policy makers.

This is the reason why we have developed a public website called UberMovement, a free, public website that makes Uber’s network data available to help governments and urban planners. This tool addresses specific problems faced by urban planners, helping them understand their mobility realities.

The cities of the future will look very different to those we see today and our public transport solutions must keep up with the evolution.

In 2015, about 4% of all kilometres driven were through a ride-hailing service. Morgan Stanley reckons this will rise to more than 26% by 2030.

I foresee the minibus taxi industry using smart systems and technology that react to real-time demand. I also imagine a world where public transport is available to everyone, irrespective of economic or geographic constraints, and easily accessible, even in the most remote areas, at the tap of a button.

The shape and form of private transport will change completely in the coming decades, along with ownership models. The car will no doubt live on in various forms for years to come. The question of who owns it, who drives it and who rides in it is where it gets interesting.

The fact is that the taxi industry and Uber have more in common than people like to consider. Integrated through smart systems, they could combine to make a truly formidable transport offering that will get South Africans moving.

* Yolisa Kani is head of public policy at Uber South Africa.

* SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE UPDATE: Get Fin24's top morning business news and opinions in your inbox.
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Company Snapshot
Voting Booth
Facebook is facing a fresh crisis after a former employee turned whistle-blower leaked internal company research . Do you still use Facebook?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, the benefits outweigh the risk for me
25% - 235 votes
No, I have deleted it
46% - 434 votes
Yes, but I am considering deleting it
29% - 272 votes