The first passengers will step aboard the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) buses and ride the busy streets of Joburg by the end of August.

Originally scheduled to hit the roads for the Confederations Cup in mid-June, but delayed by negotiations with taxi organisations, the City is now ready to meet its new deadline.

“A lack of public transport holds you hostage,” said the mayoral committee member for transport, Rehana Moosajee, at a media briefing on Tuesday, 21 July.

Some two-thirds of Joburgers don’t have access to cars, but soon they will have access to a world-class means of public transport.

“Think rail, do bus,” added Moosajee, referring to the efficiency and speed of rail transport combined with the easy access, affordability and frequency of catching a bus at the bus stop down the street.

BRT systems are also being constructed elsewhere in the country – Cape Town, Tshwane and the Nelson Mandela Metro.

Three phases
Once complete, the BRT buses will travel some 330 kilometres across the city and suburbs. The first phase, Phase 1A, from Regina Mundi Church in Thokoza Park in Soweto to Ellis Park in the inner city, will begin on 30 August. The route will pass stations at Orlando Stadium, Westgate, Chancellor House, Beyers Naude Square, Carlton Centre, Fashion Square, Johannesburg Art Gallery, and the Doornfontein campus, dropping passengers at the Ellis Park North and Ellis Park East stations.

Phase 1B will run from Soweto past the universities of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand, through to Sandton. Phase 1C will run in an east-west direction, from Alexandra to Cresta.

Some 143 buses will be rolled out in Phase 1A, travelling 25,5 kilometres and stopping at 27 stations. It is expected that 69 300 passengers will travel daily on the buses, generating R158-million in revenue annually.

The City is constructing the infrastructure, and once operational, it will also maintain that infrastructure.

There will be two kinds of buses: trunk buses, with a capacity of 112 passengers, will run in the designated lanes, with doors on the right-hand side. Complementary buses will have doors on both sides, and will travel on the BRT dedicated routes and on normal routes. They will have a capacity to carry 75 passengers.

A high-tech control room will monitor security, traffic lights and road conditions 18 hours a day. Should a breakdown occur, technicians will be dispatched immediately to move the bus from the lane, to allow for constant flow of buses. The control room will also feed information to the passengers. A voice-over system will cater for those who cannot read and the visually impaired.

Little spent on public transport
The deputy minister of transport, Jeremy Cronin, said at the briefing that over the previous 20 years very little had been spent on public transport. “Public transport is hard to sustain, with its peak flows in the mornings and evenings.”

But whereas more people owned cars, the congestion problems on freeways made private transport almost an equally time-consuming exercise. He indicated that there had been a 7 percent increase per year in car users.

“The [Joburg] BRT project is important because it is a flagship project. Transport is a key catalyser for transforming society,” he explained.

“Buses begin to democratise space – the rich and the poor use them,” he added. “The BRT has flexibility and speed, and the stations are more pedestrian friendly.” This is compared to the “sterile space” of the freeways.

“I salute what Rehana Moosajee, Lisa Seftel [the new executive director for transport], and Mayor Masondo have done in the city. I am very proud, very supportive.”

A different service
The BRT would be different in a number of ways, said Moosajee. Besides operating in dedicated lanes, making it faster and more efficient, the City and not the driver would collect the fares and pay the bus operating company.

The company would be penalised if it did not follow the bus schedules precisely, if any damage was caused to the buses, and if the buses were not spotlessly clean.

A smart card will be in place by 2010, linking smoothly with other systems like the Gautrain and Metro Rail. The buses will be accessible to people with disabilities. Security will be a priority – stations and buses will have CCTV cameras installed, and there will be a visible presence of station ambassadors.

New standards in public transport will be set by the City, matching the high standards set by the Gautrain. This means that instead of chasing passengers and speeding, to reach daily targets, the BRT drivers will have no incentive to speed but will work on a strict timetable. Each bus will contain a GPS system, so it will be easy to monitor whether a driver is going either too fast or too slow.

Talks with taxi industry
Meanwhile, negotiations with the taxi industry continue. Taxi drivers will be incorporated into the BRT, being re-trained to drive the buses. Other jobs for ex-taxi drivers will be created – at the stations themselves, on maintenance and upkeep of the buses, and in monitoring operations.

While some 24 620 construction jobs have been created, 4 530 operational jobs will be created, plus 100 BRT agency jobs. Estimates are that 575 taxi drivers will be affected.

“The BRT will be employment neutral,” explained Moosajee, meaning that whatever jobs were lost in the taxi industry would be gained in the BRT.

On 11 June the new minister of transport, S’bu Ndebele, met the taxi industry, and City talks with the industry begin again on 31 July.

“Change is never easy,” stressed Moosajee. “We want people-centred transport planning. We want to leave a transport legacy from major sporting events.”

She pointed out that there were some visionary leaders in the taxi industry who had taken a longer-term view and were looking at the future, in 20 years’ time. “At this point the City’s doors are closed to no-one.”

The Joburg BRT was based on the South American BRT system, but “the final solution is uniquely South African, and a uniquely Joburg solution”.

It is hoped that the major benefits flowing from the BRT will be traffic congestion and pollution relief. It is estimated that if only 15 percent of car users switch to the BRT by 2010, 382 940 tons of carbon dioxide will not be emitted into the atmosphere. That figure rises to 1,6 million tons by 2020.