The City of Johannesburg’s new bus rapid transport (BRT) system, named Rea Vaya, or “we are moving”, will introduce a sea change from the current public transport system South Africans have come to know.

One of the most noticeable changes when the system becomes operational in 2009 will be the absence of minibus taxis – or, at least, on the trunk (main) routes which will be serviced by the new BRT system.

City of Johannesburg transportation executive director Bob Stanway says the only buses allowed on the trunk routes will be those of the BRT system.

The trunk routes in this system will make use of large buses travelling in dedicated median lanes on current roads, with smaller complementary buses operating on BRT routes without dedicated lanes, feeding commuters into the trunk routes.

Buses will stop at special stations to be constructed every 500 m to 750 m along the trunk routes. This means a current four-lane road will typically see the two middle lanes taken up by the BRT system, with the remaining lanes allocated to other vehicles.

Phase 1A, comprising a 40-km route with 48 stations, will be completed by April 2009, ahead of the FIFA Confederations Cup, while Phase 1B will add 86 km and 102 stations to the system ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup. The estimated cost of phase 1A and B is R2-billion.

Further phases will be constructed in a step-by-step manner.

The shareholders in the various companies set to operate the bus system will be the current operators active on the routes forming part of the BRT, says Stanway. These will include minibus taxi operators, the city’s own Metrobus service, and any other bus services, such as Putco.

Buy-in from taxi operators, rather notorious for shunning any attempt to reform their industry – as demonstrated by the taxi recapitalisation project, which is still struggling to get off the mark after being announced in 1999 – may be the biggest obstacle to the project.

The recapitalisation project aims to modernise the current fleet of taxis by setting minimum standards for the vehicles used by taxi operators. Despite several agreements between government and the taxi industry, some rogue elements still refuse to comply.

By June this year, after a fresh recapitalisation programme was announced in 2004, only 4 271 old taxi vehicles (about 4,2% of the current fleet) had been scrapped as part of the taxi recapitalisation programme.

Department of Transport public transport strategy director Ibrahim Seedat says gaining the support of taxi operators is the most important aspect of ensuring a successful BRT implementation effort, and that all cities implementing systems such as these will have to give it the requisite attention and planning budgets.

These local authorities will have to develop a business proposition that (subject to operator performance) guarantees incumbent taxi owners and drivers improved profit margins and working conditions, should they become part of the BRT system.

Seedat also notes that the refusal by some taxi operators to cooperate with the taxi recapitalisation project can be linked to the perceived financial risk of change, especially in terms of profits and employment numbers.

BRT systems are being rolled out across the country, in a bid to alleviate congestion and promote public transport ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup, which should see an influx of visitors dependent on such transport.

At least three other cities – Tshwane, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth – are to introduce initial phases of BRT systems to be operational before 2010.

The City of Tshwane, for example, will develop a R1,9-billion BRT system of 92 km, to be operational in time for the World Cup. Construction is to start mid-2008, and to be concluded in 2010, City of Tshwane transport system planning and forecasts deputy manager Jaco van den Berg tells Engineering News.

Stanway says global best practice has shown that conflict is minimised when existing operators are drawn into BRT systems.

“The city of Bogota, in Colombia, faced a similar challenge with its taxi industry, and managed to avert conflict by making them shareholders in the operating companies responsible for running the BRT system.”

He emphasises that no new operators will be brought into the system, and that the operation of the BRT will revert only to current operators.

Stanway says an operating company may be responsible for any one specific route, or may be limited to portions of different routes. The latter provides leverage to the city – again similar to Bogota.
Phase one, for example, has seven routes.

“If any one operator strikes, there will be no buses available on that entire route. However, when operators are responsible for portions of routes, no one route is affected in its entirety, making it possible to ask nonstriking operators to extend their services to the affected parts,” explains Stanway.

He says the City of Johannesburg signed a memorandum of understanding with one major grouping of taxi operators in October, in preparation for the introduction of the BRT system.

“It is important to understand that we are not taking taxis off the road – we are simply incorporating taxi operators into a new public transport system,” says Stanway.

He notes that operating companies will only be announced in 2009.

“A substantial budget has been allocated to train drivers to operate within a BRT,” adds Stanway.
“Taxi drivers have code 8 licences, and would need licences for much larger vehicles.”

To those commuters anticipating a bus system representing the rather haphazard minibus taxi service, Stanway says they need not fear.

Operating companies will be paid by the kilometre, and not by commuter, meaning the emphasis is on a quick and efficient point-to-point service with no deviation.

Minibus taxi operators currently wait for their vehicles to fill up before they depart, not adhering to any set time schedule.

“We may place a pre-emptive order for the buses we require, so they can be ready when we roll out the system,” says Stanway.

Bus companies will not only supply the buses, but will also be involved in the maintenance of the vehicles, playing an important behind-the-scenes role.

Current planning is that the Rea Vaya system will make use of 188 long buses (between 18,5 m and 22 m), 102 8,5 m buses, and 350 13,9 m buses.

In a local market which sells around a thousand buses a year, numbers such as these have piqued the interest of the entire bus industry.

For example, DaimlerChrysler South Africa (DCSA) Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vehicles divisional manager Kobus van Zyl said earlier this year his company may grow capacity at its East London chassis plant, allowing it to cater for BRT demands.

However, nothing is set in stone yet – neither what the buses will look like, nor where they will be sourced from.
Stanway says there are a few ongoing projects which could still influence the City of Johannesburg’s decision on which buses to use.

One of these is a process by which the Depart-ment of Transport is set to introduce minimum standards for BRT buses, to be finalised in the first quarter of next year, says Seedat.

The South African bus industry consists typi-cally of vehicle manufacturers which assemble chassis imported from their parent companies, such as DCSA. These chassis then go to bus body builders, which construct bodies onto the chassis, such as Marcopolo.

Importing already built-up units means higher import duties, which could influence the price tag.

Seedat says the proposed minimum standards for BRT buses will include aspects such as axle weight (this influences the number of passenger the buses can carry), length (which influences seating capacity); door width; the number of doors (buses in Bogota have three to four doors for quick entry and exit); entry height (the bus entry point and the platform must be aligned); and wheelchair access.

“One example of aspects which will not form part of these minimum standards include air conditioning,” says Seedat. “Implementing cities can decide on this themselves.”

He says the reasons for the proposed minimum standards are to ensure consistency across the country, in order to bring down costs through economies of scale.

Any one city’s BRT procurement is too small a market to leverage international investment in new bus plants, notes Seedat. Hence, the challenge is to align basic standards so that the entire country is seen as one large potential market that can sustain competition from multiple manufacturers supplying a standardised product, which can then be tailored to meet the needs of different cities.

A minimum standard also provides certainty to the local bus industry, allowing it to gear up capacity in advance in order to provide the products required.

Seedat adds that the Department of Transport would prefer to have as many of the buses produced locally as possible, as this would create job opportunities.

“In the end, parts of the system will overlap, such as between Tshwane and Johannesburg. We cannot afford a situation where a Tshwane BRT bus cannot dock at a Johannesburg station, because the platform and the bus door do not align.

We need some form of standardisation,” he explains.

Stanway says one minimum specification the City of Johannesburg will demand from buses operating within the Rea Vaya system will be the use of Euro 3 engines.

This refers to a standard of engine which is cleaner-burning and which, therefore, emits less pollution than many vehicles currently on South Africa’s roads.

“If 15% of car users alongside the phase-one corridor switch to the BRT system, it would mean a 270-t drop in the carbon monoxide released into the city’s atmosphere every year,” says Stanway.

This is especially important as Johannesburg is a member of the C40 group of cities, which are working towards mitigating climate change.

“Transport is one facet of this programme,” explains Stanway.

The C40 group – consisting of 40 global cities – is linked to the Clinton Foundation, the brainchild of former US President Bill Clinton.

This foundation is in advanced discussions with most of the world’s largest bus manufacturers – in an attempt to negotiate discounts for BRT bus buyers – as it is shown that these public transport systems reduce pollution within cities, says Stanway.

“If the size of the environment-friendly global order can be guaranteed, manufacturers have indicated that they may be able to offer between 30% and 40% discount on bus prices.”

Stanway says Johannesburg is also tentatively looking at the introduction of one or two hybrid buses, as exhibition models.

Hybrid buses are viewed as green vehicles, with their combination electric/combustion power source emitting less pollutants than the pure combustion engine of a standard vehicle.

Apart from buy-in from the minibus taxi industry, the largest challenge remaining may be to beat the clock. For Johannesburg and some other cities, the 2010 curtain-raiser – the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup – is looming.

The 17-km Chinese BRT system built in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics took 16 months to complete from conceptualisation to implement-ation. South Africa has 30 months remaining to kick-off, and this for much larger systems.

At least the largest portion of phase one of the Rea Vaya system already has environmental approval from the Gauteng government. Still outstanding, though, is the portion between Industria and Parktown, largely owing to concerns byParktown residents that the system may cause noise levels to increase.

Phase one will also require the expropriation of a number of existing houses, which can become a drawn-out process if challenged in court.

Environmental approval is not necessary for all parts of the route, though, especially in areas where the BRT system will operate within existing road reserves, which means the footprint of the road remains exactly as it currently stands.

Stanway expresses the hope that BRT systems across the country will soon be able to operate under a special dispensation, allowing their environmental-impact assessments (EIAs) and approvals to be fast-tracked.

“We are hoping to get some special dispensation, not only because of the time constraints, but also because BRTs actually have a positive environmental impact, as they reduce pollution levels.

“However, to be on the safe side, we are working within a planning framework where we expect EIAs to run their normal course.

“We are positive phase 1A will be ready in time for the Confederations Cup,” says Stanway.

PUBLICATION: Engineering News
AUTHOR: Irma Venter
DATED: 7th December 2007

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