Planning & Implementing BRT in South Africa

By Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

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This month Senior Writer Kate O’Brien spoke by phone with Dr. Herrie Schalekamp, ACET (African Centre of Excellence in Transport) Research Officer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. Since 2008 Dr. Schalekamp has been involved at the Centre in research, teaching and management focused on investigating and improving transit operations and regulation in Sub-Saharan African cities.


Tell me about the aspects of South African transit reform you’ve been researching.

My team has been exploring ways to encourage locally-based modifications to the national approach to urban transit reform brought about over the past decade. We’re focusing on this in order to make public transit more practically accessible to the majority of people living in South Africa’s largest cities. I’ll give you a bit of context. Back in 2007, South Africa was designated host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup games. Planning for stadium construction and new infrastructure was very quickly set into motion. This was a huge moment for South Africa—it’s not very often that any country gets a shot at hosting the World Cup. The “sweeping solution” for infrastructure upgrades included plans for a vast overhaul of the country’s public transportation system on a very short (3-year) initial timeframe. The idea was to migrate full-stop from many small-business owned MBT (minibus-taxi) operations to one BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system overall in all of our cities.


Something about the way you started out using the term “modifications to the national approach to urban transit reforms” tells me the reforms haven’t quite gone as theorized. 

Right. In spite of widespread use to make our cities work day-to-day, MBTs were seen to be too “chaotic” to be the transport backbone for an event that the world would be watching. This sentiment influenced urban transit policy in South Africa at the time. BRT was seen as a quick-fix solution, and a number of broad assumptions were involved in making this decision. Unfortunately, policymaking favored the anticipated visitor demand rather than that of South Africans.

This is not to say that MBTs are without problems. The majority of MBT services don’t run to a schedule and their routes are difficult to decipher, which makes it difficult to use for people who don’t know how the system works. Outside of rush hour times it can also be hard to find a vehicle, as service tends to focus on places and times of day with the highest concentration of potential passengers. Owners tend to only perform the most necessary maintenance on their vehicles, which can impact passengers’ safety. Drivers earn their income based on the number of passengers they transport. This incentivizes “fast-and-furious” driving and brings additional safety risks. Nonetheless, MBTs are a core part of urban life in South Africa. Our cities are spread out and poor households mostly cannot afford central locations or automobile ownership. The reach of mass transit systems is limited, and walking distances can be excessive. MBTs fit these conditions well, and they continue to proliferate because they respond to and have developed in our local urban context.


We’ve heard so many great things about BRT’s application in places like Curitiba and Bogotá in Brazil. Why hasn’t it worked in South Africa?

A big assumption was that BRT would take root and work well in South Africa simply because it has been so successful across Latin America. Unfortunately, while yes, BRT has been very successful in Latin American cities, as with most things, there’s no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to transit. The decision to invest in BRT lacked an embrace of reality regarding the physical landscape and development patterns I mentioned earlier. MBT is demand-responsive, so it works decently well with our sprawling, low-density city landscapes. MBT operations pop up and fill a gap in transportation supply when and wherever needed. Especially as new settlements crop up on the outskirts of the cities, MBT operators can get going quickly, and even do so without seeking government approval.


Who funded all of the investment in new transit systems? How did the financing work exactly?

BRT was embraced by the South African government on the assumption that the cost of running services could be recovered by the fares that passengers pay. This was the message that came out of the Latin American experience. In the late 2000s the national government created a dedicated grant to fund urban transit infrastructure development, but at the time few realized that someone would also have to pick up the tab for the shortfall on operations. Our sprawling cities make it very difficult to run mass transit profitably. Once the BRT systems started operating it quickly became clear that they would run at quite a big a loss. Local governments had before that point never had to subsidize transit operations. It’s taken a decade for government to face the music about this. Only in the last handful of years have there been clear steps away from the narrative that wholesale replacement of MBT will happen and will be effective. So, in short, the reforms have been a bit of an unfunded mandate for local governments. But the other side, reforms have created a much greater national awareness especially amongst the middle class that we need better transit– and the income tax that the middle classes pay is one of the biggest sources of government revenue.


I took great interest when, in your report, you mentioned looking at the “soft” side of transit reform. Tell me what you meant in using that terminology.

There’s need for more nuanced transit system that involves context-specific implementation at the local level. There are some things we see on the horizon that will need to be navigated in order to realize a transit system that’s responsive to the particulars of our reality on the ground here in South Africa:

  • First, we need to push smaller-scale, more context-specific policy change at the local level, challenging the notion of one broad policy coming down from the national government. The national government took a blunt, broad-brush approach to transit policy reform. What was and is really needed is something far more localized, a strategy that would legitimize and formalize local MBT operations, and then tactically weave them into a larger transit system in which BRT may still play a part, where passenger numbers justify it and where funding is available. The national government of course still has a very important role in terms of coordinating the planning and funding.
  • Second, our strategies for transit reform need to be nimble enough to also navigate the varying governmental and political entities that govern different transportation modes. For instance, suburban rail is subject to one part of government bureaucracy oversight while buses another; MBTs (which overshadow both rail and buses in terms of passenger numbers) have yet a different governance regime. On top of that, there are also a number of national political parties that control different parts of government, so that’s another variable with which to contend.
  • Third, we need to better manage expectations among leaders and members of the public about the longer timeframe necessary for implementing and realizing tangible change at scale using localized policy reform. The nuanced approach we’re contemplating here will take time to bear out, far longer than an election cycle. Everyone wants to see substantive change come quickly, but these subtler transit reforms take time. We’ll need to devise ways to cultivate will on the part of politicians who may not get the credit, and to cultivate understanding about these issues on the part of the public. Messaging will be very important.


Change is really difficult for human beings, isn’t it? The focus of your research is on engaging the MBT operators, those first-hand stakeholders in South Africa’s transit realm who will and do feel the changes most acutely. Tell me how your work helps convey their insights.

Institutions and teams like mine have an important role to play in helping policymakers understand the implications of their policy decisions at a very granular level, and at the same time, building the will of those who stand to be involved as agents of that policy change. As I mentioned earlier, MBT could be “right fit” in many localities around South Africa, but there’s still a distance to go toward building the capacity of MBT operators to run their businesses well—to understand customer needs and provide quality service; to consider labor laws; to offer employees benefits, retirement, paid time off, and so forth.

At the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies, we have several postgraduate students who are embedded within municipal government or who work closely with MBT operators. They run focus groups with MBT drivers, for instance, holding space for dialogues centered on the perspective of customers, sharing ideas about what it’d take to become a more formalized part of the national transit system, and drawing out associated concerns. My research started in this way – through talking with operators about what motivates them and what they struggle with. As with the current generation of students working in this field, we wouldn’t be where we are without the support of the VREF. What is really encouraging is that we have been able to take what we are learning into government policy forums, allowing us to build a bridge between what operators are saying on the ground, and transit reform debates in national and local government quarters. We’ve been far more impactful than had we only been focusing on writing journal articles!


How have those dialogues gone?

They’ve gone incredibly well. The operators have been very receptive. They’re feeling heard, for perhaps the first time ever. And we know this because we don’t do the research and then withdraw back to campus. Our students share their findings with the operators they’ve worked with. We’ve developed relationships, built trust, made personal connections with one another. There’s an important intermediary role we as people in the university space are playing—we’re equalizers, code-switchers; we navigate between government folks who often hold degrees, work in a private, air-conditioned offices, draw salaries… and MBT operators, many of whom have only completed secondary school, yet successfully run businesses in very difficult circumstances. These folks have few occasions to speak with one another; they come from different walks of life, they use different vocabulary. In focus group and interview conversations, we are careful to center the operators and their expertise, thereby building a foundation from which transit policy solutions can be co-designed.


What types of concerns have the operators shared with your team?

One of their biggest concerns center around the cost of energy. South Africa doesn’t have much in the way of petroleum resources; global oil prices have been rising and as our currency has been losing value, local fuel prices have risen, too, and steeply so in the last year. For MBT owners the cost of doing business has risen apace, and they have little cushioning against passing these costs onto passengers, either directly through raising fare prices, through a decline in quality of service, or maybe both. Like other businesspeople, the operators need their ecosystem to be in balance, and they try to make things work with what they have to hand. Conversations with them around change is not easy, and the issues are intertwined and complex. But our research team is trained to walk into these dialogues with sensitivity, to hold space for dialogues across perceived differences, to create an opening that allows all involved an opportunity to find comfort in the discomfort of speaking across positions that have long been in silos, separate from one another. It’s a very exciting body of work, and I’m really keen to see where we’ll go with it next.


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