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Mobility is key to every aspect of our lives, so why is it halted?

We have learnt to expect that every large project, with a fixed delivery date and no option of cancellation, will fall hostage to event kidnappers: interest groups with a single issue at stake, and only their own interests at heart, who are skilled at hijacking the expectations of entire cities and countries to their eleventh-hour demands.

MyCiTI Walmer Estate Stop

A MyCiTi feeder bus stop in Walmer Estate having to stand ready and unused for at least 3 months.

On 23 January 2013, Kylie Hatton, the City of Cape Town’s media manager, spoke on radio about the current issues relating to the postponement of the much-anticipated Central City to Salt River Station feeder bus route. It appears that, for all the demonstable and long-overdue public benefit of this project, the usual event kidnappers reared their heads.

Deaf to all argument of the feeder bus route’s importance to those who live along it, transport monopolies such as the  taxi industry and Golden Arrow bus service have also seen fit to monopolise the debate around the delivery date of this service. The main objection raised by Golden Arrow is that they are unhappy with the city’s decision of applying for all nine feeder routes at the same time when no contractors for the other routes have been awarded. On the other hand, the taxi industry caused a second postponement of the first scheduled hearings as they were not prepared. We still don’t know their official reason for objecting.

Whether the taxi industry’s demands are entirely reasonable or not, it remains true that the voice of a very important group has not been heard: that of the commuters. This brings us to a traditional political problem, one that has been written about extensively. Debates around many issues – from taxes to farm subsidies – are easily warped by a very small but highly organised group who advocate for their own interests knowing that they harm the majority. However, for any given person in the majority, that harm is too small to move them to action.

That is how a small highly-organised interest group – a few hundred taxi drivers and a big monopolistic bus company – has the audacity to withhold an expansion of transport options, a savings in time and money, and a safer route to work for tens of thousands of people for however many months.

The truth is, of course, that at this point, with so many millions invested, the BRT systems are inevitable. They will be implemented, regardless of these delay tactics and over the objections of so-called stakeholders. The question is only when, and to whose timetable, rather than if. It also occurred to me, however, that the debate around the timeframe is incomplete because entrenched concerns in the transport industry have the power to delay and  obstruct, while there is no counterweight to their interests: no one represents the ordinary commuters and the broader public who must do without workable transport for longer.

This happens in other cities too, in different departments – but mobility is one of the most serious in which this problem has the longest-lasting effects. In Johannesburg these delays are already costing the municipality millions of Rands. Soon, Durban, Pretoria and many other smaller municipalities will begin a similar long, unnecessary battle to provide their citizens with the world-class, safe and reliable transport systems they deserve. Industry participation is necessary, but not unwarranted objections. I believe that these objections should not be even considered, because these transport services are needed not in 5 years time, but today.

Sound clip of Kylie Hatton speaking about the challenges with the MyCiTi bus project.

Back to the current MyCiTi bus Salt River route saga with its expected launch date of December 2012, now moved to some time after February 2013. The sad part of this is that the City with its many delays, was in fact ready to operate this route as all the infrastructure was completed on time, before the scheduled launch date. Many people would have used this route; it would have been ready for Cape Town’s busiest season of the year, when tourists domestic and international flock to our shores. Also, District 6 will for the first time in perhaps five decades get public transport to make the area more accessible.

As I’m no expert when it comes to legislation or policies, I would like to ask the question, not just for Cape Town, but for cities across the world: when a government service (especially one that might be considered a basic human right) is so needed/demanded, why does it need to jump through the same number of hoops as inessential projects? Why can’t these projects be expedited, in recognition of the fact that housing, healthcare, education and jobs are all accessed and made real only through and by mobility.

As I’m writing this, I feel powerless; and then I imagine the Kilimanjaro-sized speed bump coming up later this year when the City will want to expand the MyCiTi services into Khayelitsha with their N2 Express service. Will we all sit back and wait while the City, again, fights the taxi industry and Golden Arrow? Or will we do something about it?

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Rouen Smit

Future Cape Town Co-Founder

Future actuary working at a company based in Cape Town. Love open water swimming. Love taking public transport and feeling the city.

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  • http://twitter.com/hermanjordaan Herman Jordaan

    I feel powerless, frustrated and disappointed. People will have to be educated to understand that minibus taxis and Golden Arrow are extremely inefficient – a rot in our transport system. I often think that the efficiency in public transport systems I’ve experienced abroad would look like magic to the average South African citizen! The drivers operating our local public transport services are reckless, most uncourteous and insult the public’s right to safe, reliable and punctual transport. I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in Taiwan, England, Canada and The Netherlands and visited Paris & Barcelona and I’ve used their public transport extensively. It is amazing to see how much more value a person can add daily in truly connected cities. Rapid, reliable public transport is the norm in first world cities and is an essential part of economic growth.

  • Kathryn Schneider

    There seems here to be a possibility for an adequate response by commuters. If commuters could be organised in a similar way, through a union-type model or an advocacy group model, they would be able to provide a strong and organised counter to the taxi unions and Golden Arrow. The biggest strength of the taxi unions is that they are organised, and that they provide a united front. If commuters were organised, and thus recognised as a significant stakeholder, there would be greater opportunities to participate in the city’s consultation models. Any takers for establishing Association of Cape Town Commuters?

    • Rashiq Fataar

      This is a good idea Kathryn.

    • http://www.OSlOlSO.tumblr.com OSlOlSO

      I’m there for starting the Association of Cape Town Commuters!

  • Going My Way

    Golden Arrow are a bunch of hooligans. But the funny thing is, they are not a big organisation, they are run by a tiny cabal who depend on subsidies that supported them in creating a highly inefficient transport system. Even if Cape Town were not developing a new IRT system, the current system had to fall eventually. They just need to change, and the pain will go away.

    • Rashiq Fataar

      This is true.

    • http://twitter.com/citythinkspace Barbara

      Exactly, how difficult is it to stop the subsidies? When will public interest trump personal profit?

  • http://twitter.com/_LeratoMShai Lerato

    Love this!