If you do not have a car, your transport choices are being narrowed down constantly. The bus services Greyhound and Citiliner are closing down on Sunday. Putco is retrenching workers. The suburban train system is in disarray and disrepair. Will minibus taxis remain the only option?
In South Africa we have long distance public transport. Citiliner, Greyhound and Intercape are privately owned and operated for-profit transport, not subsidised by government. Urban public transport such as Putco and Golden Arrow are privately owned and operated, and receive a per-kilometre subsidy from government, explains Professor Stephan Krygsman, associate professor of transport economics at the University of Stellenbosch.
Is public transport the duty of the state?
Krygsman says it is important to understand that transport is not a right, but that access to opportunities is a right. “Government is responsible for providing access to opportunities, either by locating people close to employment opportunities, or providing transport options to get to work and other opportunities.”
If transport is a right, he says, government will provide something with no inherent value, as transport is a cost, while participating in other activities has a benefit. “We want to minimise transport. Seeing it as a right can bring about a lot of other negative developments.”
He believes that it will be better to achieve access by moving people closer to opportunities, rather than providing transport over long distances. Public transport is also not the only option. Government can promote non-motorised transport, such as walking and cycling, but this will require higher density cities, mixing of land uses, better designed cities and a high diversity of opportunities.
“Therefore the state has a role to play to provide access, but they do not need to focus exclusively on public transport.”
The answer: prioritise rail
Krygsman believes that government should prioritise and provide a reliable, viable, efficient and safe rail-based public transport option. “Rail is the cheapest mode of transport, followed by buses as the second cheapest. Minibus taxis also have a place, but the focus should primarily be on rail and secondly on buses where demand for rail is insufficient. Taxis have a role to play where these two modes are not viable due to factors such as low density.”
He suggests that the focus should then shift to sound urban planning policies that are conducive to public transport, such as getting people to live close to work, social, education and other facilities for non-motorised transport, and a high-density corridor for rail and bus transport.
“We need to increase the densities in our cities, not the high densities that you find in the informal settlements, but the high density that you find in the city centres, that are better designed, safe, clean, vibrant areas that support decent living conditions.”
The battle with running public transport
Public transport is really difficult to run, says Krygsman. “Even advanced economies and developed nations battle with public transport. It requires high levels of technical expertise, such as scheduling, management, maintenance, operations and revenue management, while requiring significant funding and a sound and conducive competition and regulatory environment and policy.”
He points out that public transport always operates at a loss, requiring a significant and ever-increasing subsidy. “You need a very competent state entity to plan, manage and regulate public transport and the competing modes, as well as design cities and land use that are conducive to public transport.”
A revenue stream, with significant passenger numbers and a subsidy, is also required. “I think our government is battling with numerous and competing demands for funding, while our ‘pool’ of public transport experts is very small. Passengers are also price sensitive and cannot carry the full cost of the service and our cities are very poorly designed and not conducive to public transport. Add to that political inference and you really have a problem.”
Less buses and trains will mean more customers for taxis, but this is not ideal, Krygsman says. “Non-motorised transport, such as walking and cycling, is not really an option and the only option is really to use private cars, e-hailing or minibus taxis, but car ownership is expensive.”
Krygsman hopes we do not end up as a country with the taxi industry as the only provider of public transport. “This will have a lot of negative impacts and be very difficult to turn around. We will not be able to reap the benefits of rail that is cheap, safe, convenient and environmentally sustainable.”
He agrees that we all want to minimise the time and cost of transport. “If taxis are the only available option, this ‘cost’ or negative utility of transport will increase and erode the benefits, or positive utility we get from participating in activities. We will pay more for transport and generally the economy will be much worse of. More money will go to transport and less money to other goods and services.”
The purpose of transport
The only purpose of transport is to get people to a destination, he says. “Transport has a negative utility. It is a grudge purchase. It is the one thing you want to limit as much as possible. You only use transport to get to activity locations which positively contribute to your life, such as earning an income, having fun, sports and purchasing household goods.”
Transport is really an unproductive expense that requires us to burn fuel and waste time. “Compare this to other goods and services. If we spend money on goods and services, it generates a positive contribution to the economy and satisfies needs. Spending on goods and services stimulates economic development and economic growth.”
However, spending on transport is an unproductive cost, taking away money from other more deserving alternatives. We want to minimise this as much as possible. Labour is one of the biggest cost elements, either the first or second largest, in transport. “If taxis are the only modes of transport, many people will work in an industry where the natural trend is to minimise costs, to get rid of labour costs.”
According to Krygsman, government’s strategies and policies to improve and promote public transport are a concern. “We do have very good policies and the National Development Plan is really good, as other strategic plans. It seems that the implementation, building of infrastructure, operation of the service, regulation of competition, the funding and the long-term planning and management of public transport does not match the quality of these strategic documents.”
He says transport is really a very complex industry and you need experts at all levels of planning, management and operations to run the service, as well as a dedicated, long-term funding stream. “I am not sure that the quality of our strategic plans is supported with the same quality planning, implementation and local expertise. This is, unfortunately, reflected in the overall decline in public transport over the last 15 years and a drastic decline since 2012.