One of the few criticisms of SA’s hosting of the recent Confederations Cup was the failure of local government to use almost- completed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems to ferry soccer fans to venues.

But BRTs and public transport are complex issues, primarily because of their considerable expense, and whatever systems are in place by next year’s Soccer World Cup, and however adequate or inadequate they are for the event itself, municipal transport will remain a significant cost that needs to be weighed up against social gain, as the suspended bus service in Durban demonstrates.

Durban is not alone. Last week, it was announced in the UK that the London-toEdinburgh rail route, the largest in the UK, is to be nationalised after National Express cancelled its operations (which were secured in 2007 when another operator gave up the route). Although the contract is to be re-auctioned next year, it is expected that there will be a deficit this year and the cancellation has raised concern that private operators benefit from times of economic growth, but walk away in downturns. Like National Express, Durban’s bus operator, Remant Alton, announced the suspension of operations due to financial losses arising from existing operations last month. This was not the first crisis the service faced; the city privatised its fleet in 2003, a strategy that has proven to be costly, with the city needing to buy back buses for about R405m last year to prop up the service.

As was the case with Johannesburg’s Metrobus earlier this year, the issue of financial viability has not been helped by costly industrial action. And while Durban has made assurances that a new service will be provided, the affordability and mechanics of this remain key, especially in light of subsidy funding.

Nonetheless, public transport is fundamental in ensuring that cities work well for all residents, which is presumably why there is much international travel by local planners seeking the holy grail of affordable, efficient and green public transport and also why, in almost all instances, public transport is subsidised, either directly (for companies owned and operated by municipalities), or indirectly (to those operated on concessions). The International Association of Public Transport points out that pricing policies are designed to meet objectives other than profitability and it is generally recognised in transport economics that financing the operation of public transport (much less the investment in infrastructure entailed) cannot be fully covered by the revenue from fares and that outside financial support is required to fill the gap between income from passenger fares and the cost of operations.

This does not in itself mean that a company is inefficient or nonviable — it only reflects the fact that fares and service levels are set with specific public policy objectives in mind that make it desirable to support a public transport system. There are multiple reasons for this: public transport systems mean lower transport costs for the community; they need less urban space than other transport systems; they are less energy-intensive than other transport systems; they pollute less; they are safer; they improve accessibility to jobs; and they offer mobility for all members of a community.

With growing pressures on the public purse, public-private partnerships (PPPs) have become increasingly common in the running of public transport companies across the globe, but as is clear in both Durban and on the London-to-Edinburgh rail route, the assumed gains from such an arrangement do not always materialise. Those advocating PPPs argue that specialised transport companies bring not only specialisation and innovation to a proposed PPP, but also efficiency gains, which cut the costs of running inherently unprofitable public transport systems and, in so doing, ensure the viability of a particular service or route and improve its quality and reliability.

For consumers, the level at which user fees are set is possibly the most controversial part of a PPP. Consider the London bus system, one of the most famous and successful public transport systems in the world in which, every weekday, more than 6500 scheduled buses carry about 5,4-million passengers on more than 700 different routes. This amounts to more than 1,5-billion passengers a year. But the subsidy to London buses is set to rise to £1bn this financial year, and it is still arguably one of the most expensive in the world to use (not only for rand-dependent South African tourists). Most bus services in London are run by one of a myriad of private operators, which have been awarded a contract by Transport for London in a market in which only 6% of the UK municipal bus companies are owned by local authorities.

So a successful bus service, possibly through a PPP, is certainly possible, but at what cost? And, more to the point, can this cost (or even a fraction of it) be borne by South African cities with far less access to large subsidies or wealthy users able or willing to bear the cost of significantly increased fares?

The answer, many South African local transport planners believe, lies in a BRT system. BRTs use articulated buses that use dedicated lanes accessed by stations that typically employ cost-effective electronic turnstiles or ticket barriers as access points. BRTs present an attractive option for fast-growing cities and their residents; requiring lower investments than light rail or subways, but providing faster transport than old-fashioned bus systems due to dedicated lanes and the use of “bendy buses” that can ferry large numbers of passengers. The BRT template is derived from the Brazilian city of Curitiba and has successfully spread to other South American countries. Colombia’s capital, Bogota, has used a BRT system to overcome its formerly chaotic bus system; Mexico City opted for a east-west BRT system (capable of serving 40000 passengers an hour); while Peru’s capital, Lima, is also considering a BRT system.

But the complexity of local transport is further illustrated by the controversy surrounding BRT systems (in Johannesburg and Cape Town) that taxi drivers, rightly , see as a threat. And generically, BRTs risk worsening congestion by monopolising lanes, which are only feasible in cities with wide, straight lanes available. And of course BRTs, although cost-effective, are unspectacular for politicians when compared with subway or light rail systems, opted for by the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo, not to mention Gautrain. That said, if a city such as London considers a BRT system a viable transport option, what should hold SA back? Aside from politics surrounding the taxi industry, the primary obstacle is funding; even if the model is a more cost effective one than alternatives, can South African cities find the revenue for transport, however socially desirable as a means to increase social inclusion and decrease pollution, when there are other pressing concerns such as sanitation and housing?

The London BRT 2007 operating budget, when the system was first announced, amounted to about R400m; less than half of which was to be paid by taxpayers, with the rest funded by fares and subsidies, making it clear that even in wealthy countries and cities, public transport is an expensive necessity.

Might we see the day in South African cities when public transport becomes too expensive a luxury?

– Heese is economist at Municipal IQ, a web- based data and intelligence service specialising in the monitoring and assessment of SA’s municipalities (www.municipaliq.co.za), while Allan is Municipal IQ’s MD.