SIKI MGABADELI: We are talking about the state of public transport in South Africa. As you know, EcoMobility Month is taking place in Sandton. Parts of the city were closed off and made into special areas where you can walk, you can cycle, you can get on a Segway. I’d probably do that, I can do that, I can get on Segway. As long as I don’t cycle, and learn how to balance myself. Or you can walk, get on a motorbike or any of those things. Really, they’ve made those of types of transport a priority.
I’m speaking to Dr Mathetha Mokonyama, who is competency area manager for transport systems and operations at the CSIR. Thank you so much, Mathetha, for your time this evening. So – what has been your experience? I know you’ve spent some time watching the developments with EcoMobility.
MATHETHA MOKONYAMA: Thank you, Siki and good afternoon to the listeners. Yes, we live in exciting times where political leadership of the country is now beginning to see that public transport is a very important agenda in the livelihood of citizens, and over time it has been shown that as democracies mature transport becomes a very important political item in elections.
So, having a mayor like the mayor of Johannesburg taking it on and saying that he wants to change things is very encouraging. It doesn’t quite happen in all the cities around the world, so having a leadership like that helps quite a lot. It gives us some hope.
But the problem that we have has been created over decades, centuries, and is not something that we can necessarily change over a few political terms. Transport is a very complex portfolio, it needs strong leadership which can bring together all these players – the private sector, the public, different agencies in the public sector as well to unite behind a common vision of creating eco-friendly transport services here.
SIKI MGABADELI: What are the key ingredients for a properly functioning public transport system? What are the things that need to be in place?
MATHETHA MOKONYAMA: First and foremost we’ve seen that leadership is very important, and leadership that attracts the right kind of people to drive visions in cities, especially.
So once you have the leadership, you are able to develop plans around people who can implement them, and you are likely to get somewhere. But where you do not have the people to implement that kind of vision you are likely to have a lot of problems. If you look at a city like Johannesburg, they are supposed to have something called an integrated transport plan. It’s been ups and downs. They haven’t quite updated it to the level that they should have updated it, so it is lagging behind in terms of overall direction, in terms of momentum, because you cannot solve things piecemeal.
You are talking about a network, you need to approach it from a network perspective. It’s like trying to say I’m going to solve water problems, pipe problems, by solving this part of the network. It doesn’t work like that. Public transport is a network. Transport overall is a network and you need to look at it as a network in general as a whole. If you are changing, for example, things in Sandton, they affect not only things in Sandton but many parts of the region, of the province, even beyond. I heard for example your previous speaker saying he was positively surprised by what had happened.
We have from our research looked at how flexible people are. People change, for example, where they start shopping, what time of day they start leaving their homes, the modes of transport they use. So people are very flexible. When you close a road it doesn’t means that things will remain like that in terms of choices that people make.
So looking at transport as a network will be one of the first steps to getting there, to solve it from a network perspective. For example, I want to hear for example the Minister saying over the next five years, over the next ten years I want to reduce vehicle kilometres per capita by so much. Then you drive change from those kind of targets. Currently I have nothing to hold the city accountable. So without those firm targets it becomes very difficult for citizens to become involved in the debate.
SIKI MGABADELI: And it’s got to be at citizen level, right, because some of the complaints that I’ve heard from people about this week are all right, I’m happy to leave my car at home and I did this experiment and I got on the Gaubus that took me to Sandton, and I got there and I did ABC – but then I had a dinner that was going to end at ten. The Gaubuses stop at nine. Now how do I get home?
MATHETHA MOKONYAMA: Absolutely.
SIKI MGABADELI: All of those things – integrating the times around how people get around so that if they do need to stop along the way and get off and go and get some groceries, how do they get them home and that kind of thing. So the psychology of the commuter – are we paying enough attention to that?
MATHETHA MOKONYAMA: Absolutely not. We are not paying enough attention to that. This is what makes transport planning very exciting, because it cannot be just engineers that do these things. You need a lot of disciplines to come together. You need the wisdom of psychology, for example, to design experiments properly. You need all sorts of disciplines to come together to come up with the solutions. And a lot of the best solutions that we have seen work are where all these disciplines come together to come up with the solutions.
We have looked at some of the research, for example, that shows that this is how change happens. You want to have combined a certain set of people to try to show them this is how you could have made choices this day. You had this available, did you use it, why didn’t you use it? So sort of coach people on how to travel. That kind of experiment has been shown, for example, to reduce car travel by as much as 10% – in some cases as much as 20%. So when people are made actively aware of the choices that are around them they are more likely to change. And those kind of experiments have been done with the help of psychologists and sociologists and so forth.
SIKI MGABADELI: There are also issues around safety of course, and that is something that we cannot put aside. People will walk if they feel that they are safe. They will ride a bicycle if they feel that that street is well lit. But other people are also walking along that particular street. Do we take safety concerns and issues into account when we are planning around infrastructure?
MATHETHA MOKONYAMA: It is something that comes out very often in the surveys that we do – that one important thing is the cost. The second thing that comes out as important is safety. I don’t think we are paying as much attention as we should in terms of designing our services. One experiment that we did, we looked at users and non-users of the Prasa service, the so-called Tshwane Business Express. The one thing that the non-users of the service expressed quite strongly is that, no matter what you call it, it’s still a train and a train is very unsafe and they would not use it for that specific reason.
The other thing around city security is road traffic accidents. We are spending as a country something like R22bn on Road Accident Fund claims. That is a lot of money. We cannot afford to spend that kind of money on claims when we have huge infrastructure backlogs in transport. So safety and security go along together very well. When we design our services we need to look at those aspects quite closely.
SIKI MGABADELI: Particularly for pedestrians. I started walking around my suburb here and I’ve realised householders have taken over the pavements. So you actually can’t walk on the pavements because people have planted things that you can’t walk on. So you land up walking in the street – and this explains why we have such a high rate of pedestrian deaths in this country.
MATHETHA MOKONYAMA: Absolutely. Almost half – 40% or so – of our fatalities are pedestrians. It’s something that we haven’t gotten right so far. The kind of approaches that we are trying to use are more like flavour of the month, what can I do, a campaign, we give them names. But we really need to take it very seriously, focus. It’s not something we can solve in a year or two. It’s something that needs concerted effort, you need to focus, a multi-year focus, something that transcends political terms of office. And transport is so important to the economy. It is the second-highest expenditure item in households and we cannot afford as a country to be spending that kind of money.
SIKI MGABADELI: And to ignore it. Here is a tweet from Emile, who says: “I wish I was back in Sandton – great initiative from a lonely bicycle commuter in Durban.” Emile, you are going to have to teach me to ride a bicycle.
We’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks so much for your time today, Mathetha Mokonyama.
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