Cape Town - In South Africa bus rapid transit systems
(BRTs), which were pioneered to great effect in Latin American countries such
as Colombia and Brazil, are being promoted as potentially effective ways of
delivering improved public transport services to the urban poor.
But experts question whether systems such as these can
alleviate poverty to any meaningful extent. BRTs, sometimes referred to as
"rail on road" systems, are high quality, high capacity bus systems
with their own right-of-way, dedicated bus lanes.
Today the TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia carries around
1.6 million passengers every day, over 84 km of segregated busway. In Curitiba,
Brazil, about 70% of commuters use the BRT, and around 30% of passengers are
"converted" private car users.
It is upon purportedly transformative systems such as these
that the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Cape Town in South Africa, Lagos
in Nigeria and Nairobi in Kenya have pinned their transport hopes and dreams.
Early phases of multi-million dollar capital projects are
operating in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and are set to launch soon in at least
four other cities in South Africa.
But while it is too early to draw long-term conclusions
about the impact of these transport systems, a number of researchers are asking
questions and coming up with some answers about their ability to contribute to
national goals of alleviating poverty.
James Chakwizira, a senior researcher in the built
infrastructure department at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research
(CSIR), said although these high quality services do have great potential for
addressing public transport challenges within communities, the current
initiatives - such as Johannesburg's three-year-old Rea Vaya system - fall
short of expectations.
He said because terminal infrastructure developments are
located away from the marginal communities' location, people from these areas
need to use a minimum of two transport modes to access and use the routes.
Councillor Rehana Moosajee, who is a Mayoral Committee Member
for Transport for the City of Johannesburg and a Rea Vaya champion, said that
initially one of the Rea Vaya system's key imperatives was to overcome
apartheid's spatial legacy and promote access and social cohesion.
"I think that now a lot more work will have to be done
over a period of time in assessing impacts on poverty, as based on the city's
own multiple deprivation indices, the areas of highest multiple deprivation are
further south of Soweto and therefore not yet reached by the service.
"Our own experience suggests that Rea Vaya commuters
are certainly saving time, though, and we have also had some interesting
accounts of property availability and take-up on certain parts of routes and
the creation of economic activity," she said.
At a December 2011 conference on Land Passenger Transport,
Karen Lucas, an international researcher on transportation equity, supported
the implementation of BRT to the extent that "these major infrastructure
projects are needed to bring high quality, modern and efficient mainstream
public transport services to inner cities".
However, she noted "these services will serve only a
minority of the travel needs of urban populations".
Doesn't really help poorest commuters
Research released in July by the University of Pretoria's
Christo Venter and Eunice Vaz reached a similar conclusion.
Using data from a small-sample household survey conducted in
Soweto, they found that the time and cost benefits of the system "accrue
largely to medium-income households rather than to the poorest commuters in the
"To the extent that passengers can spend time and fare
savings on other goods, Rea Vaya contributes to poverty reduction," they
The researchers also noted that Rea Vaya is priced higher
than the cheapest available public transport alternative, commuter rail, which
remains the mode of choice for the poorest commuters.
The average travel cost for Rea Vaya users comes to R10.20
per one-way trip to work, as compared to R11.70 for other modes of transport
like mini bus taxis, which most people used to take before Rea Vaya.
Overall, the direct benefits of Rea Vaya are skewed in
favour of middle- rather than lower-income residents, the researchers
concluded. They suggested that more specific targeting was needed for the BRT
to deliver significant poverty reduction benefits.
The situation is similar with the City of Cape Town’s MyCiTi
early phase BRT service.
African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and
Non-motorised Transport (ACET) researchers Lorita Maunganidze and Romano Del
Mistro used ACET Household Survey data to conclude that MyCiTi might not be of
value to poor commuters.
"While poor commuters may benefit from more accessible,
frequent and fast BRT services, ironically, these will be more expensive and in
some cases unaffordable to them and therefore of no benefit," the
They recommend that the routing structure be revised and
rationalised to make in-vehicle and trip distances shorter, particularly for
the poor commuters who face the longest commuting distances and times; and that
local BRT be tailored more specifically to work within the South African
environment or under South African conditions.
Councillor Brett Herron, City of Cape Town's Mayoral
Committee Member for Transport, Roads and Stormwater, said it is not possible
to look at the impact of a new BRT service on poverty, or on poor communities,
in isolation from the entire public transport network.
"BRT is just one mode of transport and this mode alone
cannot have expansive direct economic benefits to poor communities - BRT trunks
alone are not going to bring about the level of change we require in order to
universally benefit the urban poor.
"We will seriously address poverty only when we piece
together all the complicated components of this puzzle; public transport is one
piece with changed land use, densification, transit-orientated development, all
responding to new or improved public transport corridors, we will start to
bring people to opportunities and take opportunities to people."
Pauline Froschauer, project manager for Rustenburg Rapid
Transport, which is currently in the construction phase, said that instead of
poverty alleviation, a transport project such as a BRT should be measured
against what is usually its primary objective: the effect it has on levels of
mobility and accessibility.
"At best one could say that by improving mobility and
accessibility, there are positive 'externalities', such as city development,
local economic development and poverty alleviation.
"But to try to measure this in one BRT corridor (such
as the Soweto-CBD Rea Vaya) is, I think, misrepresentative. Until one has a
reasonable network effect, improved mobility and accessibility will not be
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