Jo’burgers seem bizarrely unaware of what is about to hit them next month. Theoretically, from August 31, the first part of the first leg of Johannesburg’s bus rapid transport (BRT) system, called Rea Vaya, begins. The route is from Regina Mundi to Ellis Park, and it explains the massive roadworks going on around the city and the strange new stations popping up all over the place.

This service is just the first of a massive web of routes the city has approved for the whole of greater Jo’burg. To see the extent of the system for the first time, as I did last week, is really quite a shock.

Jo’burg already has an ailing bus service and thousands of swarming minibus taxis, so I suspect many city residents don’t really get the need for this new service, even as they are frustrated by the city’s transport system.

But a BRT system is a substantially different thing from a bus service. The whole idea is to create something that might otherwise have been a rail system or tram system, yet uses buses as they are so much cheaper. Hence, the service is supposed to be ultrafrequent with dedicated lanes, level boarding and no on-bus fare collections.

And you thought all of the roadworks around the city adding lanes was for you and your car? Surprise.

Many things fascinate me about the BRT system. It’s extraordinary how small changes can make big differences. For years, people thought metro rail systems worked because there was some magic about the rails, perhaps involving the certainty of the route or the frequency. It’s certainly a very efficient system, albeit massively expensive to build. One driver can ferry thousands of people at the time.

But actually, the difference between metro rail systems and bus es lies much more prominently in the simple issue of who takes the fare. Bus systems seem clunky by comparison to metro rail systems mostly because taking a bus typically involves the laborious process of taking everybody’s fare. BRT systems have magically changed this through the simple process of having stations that resemble metro rail systems where tickets are bought at the entrance, and everybody gets on and off unimpeded.

There is also a much larger and perhaps ethereal debate to be had here. In a sense, the BRT system is a micro application of the much larger economic debate about free markets and state intervention. The BRT system is, in effect, a grand effort at state intervention while South Africa’s minibus taxi system is more an expression of free markets. The great virtue of the taxi system is its flexibility. Taxi routes fluctuate and undulate massively according to need. The industry is a kind of miracle of invention and sensitivity to immediate transport needs.

Unfortunately, its flexibility and openness means it is a very marginal business financially. The barriers to entry are extremely small. The result is everything we know about the taxi industry: intense competition, conflict, corruption, overcrowding and interminable waiting for the bus to be full before the driver will move.

But it’s also cheap and convenient, which is partly why minibus taxis won the transport war, and now have about 70% of the transport market around the city. Now, into this system, the city is about to dip its not inconsiderable oar. The taxi industry is right to see this as a threat to its business.

The fact is the city is tipping the scales in its favour, spending R10bn in total on the project; R3,5bn on infrastructure, R2bn on buses, and a stupendous R5bn on operating contracts.

Imagine if the taxi industry could grant itself the right to widen roads and spend billions building fancy stations using other people’s money? Yet, it’s incredibly difficult to feel any sympathy for the taxi industry. Taxi drivers have acted like road thugs for years, both to other road users and to their own passengers. So they have gradually lost public trust. The industry claims intellectual property rights over certain routes, but it forgets that reputation management is its most precious intellectual property resource, and that resource has been gratuitously squandered.

On balance — as much as it irks me to be on the same side as BRT’s biggest fan, communist party luminary and now Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin — I think the BRT system is precisely the kind of intervention the city should be making, and I really hope it works. The system is proven internationally, it’s more efficient, it’s consumer oriented, and it will provide the taxi system with some much-needed competition.

Most critically, it will regularise a large chunk of city transport, a much more important function of state intervention than is often appreciated.

Yet, in the interim, there are significant details to be thrashed out. One of the most critical is whether the city and national government, in the words of one of my colleagues, take the high road or the low road in dealing with the taxi industry.

The high road would be to face down the industry, and insist it performs a valuable but lesser function in feeding into the BRT system.

The low road would be to buy off the taxi industry, granting it a cut of the revenue involved in the system, possibly not in the transport part but in ancillary contracts like station security.

Then there is also the question of money. No one is claiming the system will ever be profitable. The city is expecting revenue of R168m in the first year, which will increase.

But even if this revenue were all “profit”, it would take 63 years to pay back the expenditure. The system is, in fact, the opposite of profitable. It will introduce for the first time substantial, subsidised transport into SA’s transport system, a massive boon to a spread-out city like Johannesburg, where transport costs are so high.

But there is a massive difference between a sustainable subsidised system and a system that places a horrendous financial burden on the city, which it cannot afford, and which therefore causes terrible problems in other areas.

Which of these is the Rea Vaya system? The short answer is that we don’t know. A lot depends on how effective the system is, and how many people use it. It’s a bit worrying that there is such a big rush to get it up before the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but in another way it’s valuable that there is such a pressing target out there. The city managers sometimes just have to swing for the fences — and hope.