On the eve of the opening ceremony of the World Cup, Sky News featured an item about the 2010 event. The report, by Sky’s South Africa correspondent, painted a gloomy picture about the likelihood of this country being ready to stage the tournament.

The emphasis was on the stadiums, with football legend Pele suggesting that the money might run out before construction was com-pleted. That is possible but at least we do have a number of stadiums ready to handle the crowds and the media. What we do not have, anywhere, is an urban public transport system capable of providing anything like the standard of service visitors will expect and demand. And worryingly, there is very little sign of any move to start the process of upping standards.

Interviewed by Sky, Cape Town mayor Helen Zille said that we would not be putting on a German world cup — ours would be a South African event. Fair enough, but there are certain minimum requirements that we will need to achieve. A decent urban transport system is one of those.

To judge by the few pronouncements made by government, the main transport need is seen to be one of getting people to and from the venues on match days. That will be a big task, but relatively easy to arrange. Spectators will come from hotels in city centres, from park and ride sites, and from townships. Shuttle services can meet these needs, with the newly recapitalised minibus taxi fleet playing a big role.

We already have experience in this kind of operation, not least from the 2003 Cricket World Cup. It is also true that government is providing significant amounts of capital for improvements to transport infrastructure. And several of the stadiums are already served by Metrorail lines.

So getting spectators to and from the matches represents an organisational task that we should be able to handle. Much the same applies to the transport of visitors from their arrival airport to where they will be staying.

Of much greater concern is the standard of our urban public transport services — and yet that is what we should be concentrating on if World Cup 2010 is to provide the “legacy” we have been promised.

The vast majority of visitors will want to follow their national team. Their team will play three matches during the two weeks of the group stages, and even less frequently if they progress to the later rounds. Outside the matches, visitors will want to get around their host city to visit tourist attractions and just to see the daily life of the people of SA. They will expect to use public transport.

In his budget speech to the Gauteng legislature on June 6, provincial transport MEC Ignatius Jacobs had this to say: “With only four years left to 2010, the Gauteng provincial government has a political responsibility and obligation to ensure that its public transport system can meet the commuter demands associated with international events of this type and of the soccer World Cup in particular. Equally, just over 12 years into our democracy, we have a political responsibility and obligation to accelerate our pace of delivery in respect of public transport.”

So far so good.

But he went on to say: “In October 2005, our department convened a first-ever historic commuter indaba.

“Buses were described as the most unreliable form of public transport in that they simply did not arrive and that no timetables were available at bus stops. Trains were described as always being late, not very safe and overcrowded. Taxis were described as not being safe due to the condition of vehicles and the driving ability/style of taxi drivers.”

Even allowing for the generalisations that delegates will inevitably make at a gathering such as the Commuter Indaba, these accounts indicate just what a low base we are starting from. And we really have very little time. If we are to avoid “shock/ horror” reports to the world in 2010 we must have significantly better services in place by the end of 2008, so we can bed them in and fine tune them by June 2010. This means that improvements must start right now.

Where, then, should the transport authorities concentrate their efforts?

Suburban rail services have been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that they are now a disaster area. We have to hope that something can be achieved by 2010, but it will take quite spectacular amounts of effort and funding to achieve improvements.

Taxis operate in the informal sector on an unscheduled, cash-only basis. It may take a long period of transition to persuade taxi operators to adopt formal sector methods of operation which will enable them to participate in integrated networks.

SA has neither the time nor money to build light rail or tram lines to help with World Cup 2010 transport.

This leaves buses as the mode where rapid service improvements can be made and where the best return on investment of effort and money is likely. The place to start looking might be the Klipfontein corridor in Cape Town. The city, together with the provincial government, is to concentrate buses on this route, which runs from Mowbray to Khayelitsha via Athlone. They will operate for 18 hours a day, with more off-peak buses than at present. Another eight similar high-frequency routes are planned.

Johannesburg’s integrated transport plan shows the same approach.

Western Cape provincial transport minister Marius Fransman recently announced that contracts for operating the service would be put out to tender “during the second half of 2006”. That is great, but it is only one example of what will need to be done countrywide.

The Klipfontein corridor was first announced in 2003. More than three years later it is still not in operation. It is true that the original plans included R450m-worth of bells and whistles which have now been dropped. But we will need to move very much faster if our cities are to have even a basic “SuperRoute” bus system working efficiently by 2010.

The buses used must be modern low-floor city models. The routes will need to be individually branded for ready recognition. Information at bus stops must be just part of an improvement in customer information. And all routes in a city must be part of the same ticketing scheme, even if it is just a simple network pass.

If we can get these urban “SuperRoutes” up and running in the next two or three years, SA will be able to handle the transport needs of World Cup 2010 visitors. At the same time, we will have provided the basis for further improvements in urban public transport, long after the football fans have left our shores.

DATED: 13th June 2006