|I engaged this week in what I thought would be an experiment in city politics and transport policy, but ended up reflecting on the media.
It was an experiment of a totally banal kind; I took a trip on the Rea Vaya.
The bus rapid transit system seems to me an eminently sensible and necessary system, especially for a spread-out city like Johannesburg. It has excellent, proven precursors; it uses real-world technology; itâ€™s comparatively cheap and unquestionably useful.
The â€œthink train, act busâ€ logic is very appropriate to a growing but financially constricted city like Johannesburg. The idea is to use the platform system â€” where you buy tickets before boarding, like trains â€” before using the cheaper, above-ground bus system to do the transporting.
I experienced a total fiasco. At a press conference introducing the system, a colleague asked whether Johannesburg had the skills to implement the system. I thought this was a bit of a cheeky question, and it got the appropriate response. Rehana Moosajee, the Cityâ€™s councillor for transport, said tactfully that â€œsometimes we underestimate the skills we haveâ€.
Having experienced the result, I would have to retract my initial support for Moosajee and say that sometimes we underestimate the skills we donâ€™t have.
As I arrived in my car to embark on the experiment, I tried to park in a legal parking place around the corner from one of the Rea Vaya stops. But an aggressive taxi parking attendant stopped me, saying sarcastically that it was a Rea Vaya stop.
Typical, I thought. This is why Rea Vaya is going to work. People are sick of the belligerence of taxi drivers, their threatening attitude and their general lawlessness.
When I got to the station, nothing seemed to work. The ticketing process was OK, but only one of the doors was opening . We were herded into a queue and made to wait. The logic of having many entrances and exits to make the system speedy and efficient didnâ€™t seem to dawn on the very polite attendants.
When the bus came it was full, so very few people could embark. I waited for about 40 minutes, during which two empty buses passed. The attendants said their doors couldnâ€™t open. So why were they in use ?
With time running out, I decided to not take the Soweto route but to do the Ellis Park circuit. In the afternoon, the station was empty. Again the doors didnâ€™t work, but they were all open. The electronic signs werenâ€™t operating and the security system seemed dysfunctional too. The station looked as if it had been open for two years, not two days.
It was another half an hourâ€™s wait before a bus came, and I took it for a few stops before getting off. The seats were comfortable and the buses are impressive.
All along the way, the point seemed to be lost. The Rea Vaya system should be remorselessly efficient and regular to give it credibility and utility. Yet remorselessly efficient and reliable is not the South African way.
But what really bugged me was that there was no apparent, obvious desire to set things right. This is a public money project, after all.
Officials were at a loss to explain why things didnâ€™t work. They didnâ€™t seem to have any way of contacting the operations centre, assuming there is one, and if they had, nothing appeared to have been done to address the problems. How difficult is it to fix a door that wonâ€™t open?
There was no visible complaints telephone number at the stations. The lack of visible public support for Rea Vaya from Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo is also revealing.
But there is also a media problem . Nothing about the lack of a regular service or the problems with buses and doors seemed to have found its way into the media. The Rea Vaya website reads: â€œNo major hitches on 3rd day.â€
I beg to differ. If this is the threat the taxi industry faces, they can rest easy.