the long road to a greener commute - a look at jo'burg's public transport system

Submitted by Raisa on Tue, 2012-05-08 10:08

Raisa Cole takes to Jo'burg's streets to find out why most of us don't use public transport.

The transportation sector is the most rapidly growing source of greenhouse gases in South Africa. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the carbon emissions from the sector has grown by 30% in the last ten years, making it the fastest growing sector in terms of carbon emissions.

Reducing the number of cars on the road seems to be the logical answer, but the majority of South Africans still use private vehicles as their primary mode of transport.

Every day the streets of Jo'burg are filled with around 3.2 million commuters, 41% of whom rely on public transport as their only means of getting around. This, of course, leaves the majority of Johannesburg commuters (53%) traveling in private cars.

I took to the streets of Johannesburg to understand why the majority of South Africans haven’t yet switched to public transport.

THE MISSION: A bold investigation into the viability of greener commuting by “authentically” experiencing the Johannesburg Public Transport monster…I mean system.

The question I set out to ask was whether middle class South Africans, the demographic in society with the greatest ecological footprint, would see public transport as a viable alternative to motor vehicle use.

Environmentalists often advocate for behavioural change as the primary climate change response required. This is all very well, but the question remains whether the transport infrastructure in South Africa can support this behavioural change?

I set out to investigate what the major draw cards are to get people to shift from private vehicles to public transport.

THE CREW: My group was made up of various government officials, scientist and environmental activists. We all agreed that it was time for a bunch of moderately climate conscious snobs, like ourselves, to instigate some serious lifestyle changes.

However, it is all very well to separate household waste and audaciously declare a life without meat, but to go without our beloved cars, was this even possible?

Obviously it was possible, since those taxis that we curse (albeit under our breathe), are always filled with people, right? But is the Johannesburg Transport System able to support those behavioural changes in a viable way?

I started my journey in Braaimfontein, while the rest of the crew headed to Rosebank station to take the Gautrain to Marlboro. Our plan was to meet up in Alexandra Township (or Alex) for some pap and nyama at a wonderful spot called Joes Butcher.

The Gautrain crew found it rather easy to pre-plan their trip with information about routes, fares and timetables readily available on the internet.

I, however, had to surrender to my decidedly underdeveloped street cred. While the Gautrain crew boarded the beautifully gleaming train, in single file no doubt, I was trying to figure out which taxi to take and where.

There is no central point where one can access information about routes, fares and frequency of taxis.

I had to rely, instead, on informal communication to plan my route. What was surprising about this was that once I surrendered to these informal systems and found the courage to “ask my way around”; the ease at which information was available was impressive.

It took me two minutes to find my way to the right taxi. What was also surprisingly efficient about the taxi system was its ability to adapt to developments in the Johannesburg transportation system.

When the rest of the crew arrived at Marlboro station they did not have to wait more than a few minutes to find a taxi headed to Alexandra. The taxis of Johannesburg feed quite easily into other forms of transport.

IS IT ALL ABOUT MONEY? Most of our fellow commuters stated economic benefits as the only driver behind their decision to use public transport.

With petrol prices at R11.46, a 35 day pass from Rosebank to Marlboro on the Gautrain will cost you R756.

The same round trip in a BMW X5 will cost you R1260 for 35 days.

While budget seems to play a huge role in what mode of transport people decide to use, there are also other important factors. Convenience, for example, plays an important role amongst the more privileged commuters. A couple more bucks for comfort is a price they are willing, and indeed able to pay. The majority of commuters on the Gautrain switched from private to public commuting. In this decision may lie the answer to how others can be convinced to do similar.

The Gautrain seems to meet all the requirements. It is convenient, affordable and has a certain luxurious appeal to it.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of travelling with public transport is the lack of choice in certain parts of the city.

The Gautrain buses take forever to fill up and getting to the station on them is horribly time consuming. Many people are forced to take minibus taxis for lack of a better option.

While these taxis service a large portion of South Africa’s commuters, the industry is not without its problems. It might be challenging to switch to minibus taxi commuting if you are used to the comforts of your private vehicle such as…oh I don’t know, seatbelts and functional doors!

A cheaper alternative to travelling around the city centre is with the Rea Vaya buses. The Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system is well organized and extremely affordable. The routes are limited, but it is easy for this system to feed into other modes of transport once all stations have been constructed.

Each of the three public transport options has positive and negative aspects. It became evident on my trip around Johannesburg that integration between them is vital if we are to set up public transport as a convenient as well affordable alternative to cars.

None of our fellow commuters alluded to any environmental consciousness in deciding to travel by bus, train or taxi.

Other than providing cheaper alternatives, the transport system also needs to be comfortable and convenient.

And perhaps to provide those more accustomed to first world comforts, a little more luxury.