The City of Johannesburg finally cut the ribbon on its Rea Vaya bus rapid transit (BRT) system at the end of August, â€¨despite an attempt by the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) and the United Taxi Association Forum (UTAF) to halt the process two days before the event.
Thousands of commuters showed up at the Rea Vaya stations dotting the 25-km route to make use of the opportunity to test the system free of charge on its first day of operation.
Police officers were scattered all along the route and even on the packed buses, casting a watchful eye over the proceedings.
City of Johannesburg member of the mayoral committee for transportation Rehana Moosajee said that the High Court judgement in favour of the city vindicated the councilâ€™s view that there was no valid reason to stop the launch of the BRT service.
â€œIt was what we expected, [given] the process we have undertaken throughout the last two years.â€
Santaco and UTAF had motivated their court action by saying that there had not been sufficient consultation before implementing the BRT system. Santaco had also previously stated that it supported the system, but that it did not understand it.
The Minister of Transport, Sibusiso Ndebele, had no kind words remaining for Santaco and the UTAF at the launch of the public transport system, noting that he had realised in an â€¨earlier meeting with Santaco â€“ in an attempt to avert a taxi strike over the BRT launch â€“ that he â€œwas the only one who had not been to BogotÃ¡ or Brazil and all these places [where] the BRT operatesâ€. â€©â€œThey have all been to see how it operates. There isnâ€™t a way they can still say, â€˜I support the BRT, but I donâ€™t understand itâ€™.â€
Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane added that the taxi industry was dominated â€¨â€œby lawlessness, and anarchyâ€, and that the time had come to â€œinstil dignity, respect and maturityâ€ in the public transport sector.
However, not all taxi operators are against the implementation of the BRT system.
The Greater Johannesburg Regional Taxi Council and the Top Six taxi body form part of a joint steering committee that is currently â€¨negotiating with the city to form a BRT â€¨operating company, which will then take over from the interim company currently at work.
Phase 1A of the system displaced 575 taxis, and these operators and drivers were invited to operate the BRT system.
The launch of the BRT system put 200 former taxi drivers to work.
Joint steering committee member Sipho Mntambo had no sympathy for Santaco, and its secretary-general Philip Taaibosch either.
â€œWe canâ€™t have a government ruled by us â€“ by the taxi people â€“ yet we are not in Parliament.
Some of our colleagues are not leading their people, but their pockets.â€
Mntambo said the heart of the taxi-BRT problem resided in the fact that certain taxi associations wanted to lead the BRT project.
â€œThe problem is a power struggle. Everyone wants to lead.â€
Ndebele added that South Africa was striving to create a public transport system that could provide peace of mind for commuters during peak and off-peak periods.
â€œPeace of mind is when a party ends in Soweto, and a teenager from Sandton is sure of a safe trip home.â€
Following the Sunday launch â€“ on the first day of the BRT system operating in full â€“ the City of Johannesburg had to work round the clock to iron out operational and capacity challenges.
This followed reports that many taxis were not operating, despite the industryâ€™s decision not to go ahead with its earlier planned strike in protest against the introduction of the BRT system.
â€œWe are very disappointed that, despite the decision, taxi drivers are not operating,â€ said Moosajee.
â€œIt shows a lack of respect for the millions of commuters who have been supporting them and using their services over the years.â€
She added that the taxi strike had put the BRT system â€œunder extreme pressureâ€ on its first full day of operation.
In response to the situation, the city â€¨increased capacity on the BRT lines.
â€œWe are really encouraged by the overwhelming support we are already receiving from commuters and the general public,â€ said Moosajee.
She added that there would inevitably be teething problems, which had been exacerbated by some taxi drivers not working.
There was a problem, for example, with station doors not opening and closing as they should.
â€œThe starter service provides us with an â€¨opportunity to test out all aspects of the ser-â€¨vice and to iron out any problem areas prior to introducing the service more broadly,â€ noted Moosajee.
â€œWe will have some problems as we begin, as with any major system that is introduced, but we are fully committed to sorting these out as quickly as possible to ensure a positive travel-â€¨ling experience for Rea Vaya passengers.â€
The BRT systemâ€™s main routes see specialised buses running in dedicated lanes, stopping at specially designed stations, located roughly every 750 m along the way.
The 25-km starter service which kicked off on August 30 runs from Lakeview station, in Soweto, to Ellis Park station, also offering an inner-city complementary service. It operates in two shifts, with limited off-peak services.
The full phase 1A, to be implemented by January 2010, will use expanded trunk and feeder routes and three-shift operations.