|The BRT revolution will help build a world-class African city, writes Lisa Seftel.
In the heady days of 1994, plans abounded for the transformational and, dare I say, revolutionary tasks that lay ahead. New laws were drafted, new institutions set up. By 2004, many social experiments had been conducted, some successful and some still to prove themselves. But the appetite for large- scale transformational projects had declined.
And then, in 2006, the City of Joburg decided on one of the most revolutionary projects to date: to abandon more cautious plans to introduce â€œtaxi right-of-way lanesâ€ and implement instead a fully fledged Bus Rapid Transit system which we called: Rea Vaya: We are going!
In essence the BRT â€œthinks rail and does busâ€. It puts buses in dedicated lanes in the middle of existing roads so that they can speed along without getting stuck in the traffic. Our Rea Vaya also include stations in the middle of the road for easy access to the buses, and fares will be collected at the stations so that drivers will not delay when collecting money â€” nor will they be able to pocket the fares.
The City of Joburg has approved plans for three phases of the BRT. Phase 1A, is now about to be begin operations from Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, through the Joburg CBD to Ellis Park Stadium.
Commuters on this route know all about the BRT. They have seen huge dongas dug in the roads, been forced to take diversions and suffer through intersections where the traffic signals are out of order. Next to the roadworks, we have put up signs: Rea Vaya under Construction: Please be patient during this time. Rea Vaya will be worth it!â€
But perhaps the question they are more likely asking is: â€œWill the waiting ever be over?â€
On the construction side, the Johannesburg Development Agency has made a revolutionary effort to complete 25km of road works and 27 stations in record time. Most construction work is now focusing on the second phase, such as down Empire Road and around the Metro Centre in Braamfontein.
However, constructing the infrastructure has been the easy part for the BRT project team. Purchasing the buses proved to be more challenging. The equally revolutionary skills of bankers and planners came together and we have arranged financing on excellent terms for the buses to be procured by the taxi industry. All 143 buses for the first phase are already in town. The City has taken delivery of 75 buses after confirming they all meet SABS approved standards.
The real revolutionary challenge remaining is partnering with the taxi industry to get the buses actually running. Or we can put it in another â€” less revolutionary â€” way: making the broadest-based black economic empowerment deal in the country happen.
The City has committed to this partnership. We could have gone out to tender for bus operators. We did not. In line with transport legislation we are offering incumbent taxi operators the right to become shareholders in the operating company that will run the buses.
Further, we are saying that the BRT project must be â€œemployment neutralâ€. We are offering taxi drivers training to become bus drivers and other operators and workers (both formal and informal) opportunities to be involved in station management and bus maintenance, among others.
Finally, we are committed to look at ways in which the taxi industry can benefit from the so- called BRT value chain. This includes how they can become equity or operational partners in anything from advertising at BRT stations to the road paint that is used to mark the roads as bus- only lanes.
This, however, does not come on a plate. All revolutions end up in some form of negotiation. Increasingly, operators and their associations who are affected by Phase 1A have indicated their willingness to come to the table and negotiate how they can take advantage of the opportunities that are being offered.
And all revolutions have to be defended. The City of Joburg is prepared to defend our public transport revolution. We are doing so against a minority of taxi operators who are threatened by change.
One should also be mindful that in the first phase of BRT, buses are only replacing about 575 taxis owned by not more than 300 operators.
We are defending our revolution firstly in the interests of the thousands of public transport users who deserve better and in the best interest of car users who we are trying to attract to public transport. And secondly, to continue to build a world-class African city, which needs a world- class public transport system that not only moves people efficiently, but also shapes land-use patterns and overcomes our apartheid legacy.
So come August 30 this year we will have buses rolling on our dedicated lanes. We want to show commuters that their interests are paramount. We want to show South Africans that revolution is still possible.
# Lisa Seftel is the City of Joburgâ€™s executive director for transport