Greening the transport sector – A view from South Africa

A former mayor of Bogota famously said that a developed country isn’t one where poor people own cars, it’s one where rich people use public transport. According to local experts, greening up the transport sector in South Africa should focus on efficient, affordable public transport, rather than rolling out privately-owned electric vehicles, writes Leonie Joubert.

South Africa in urgent need for an improved public transportation system. (Photo by Aimee Gauthier, modified, CC BY 2.0)

In South Africa, a private car is a status symbol. It means you’ve arrived in the echelons of the middle class. And, it means you don’t have to squash yourself into unreliable, slow, expensive, and sometimes dangerous public transport. Here, state run trains and buses, and privately-owned fleets of minibus taxis, run the lion’s share of the routes which ship South Africans between home and work every week.

But if everyone in the country owned their own car, the roads would be congested to the point where nothing would move. The cost of infrastructure to support private vehicle use (everything from widening roads and bridges to fit more traffic, through to the infrastructure needed to cater for the associated demand for liquid fuel, such as fuel refining and distribution), would far outstrip the money invested in mass public transport, explains Michael Boulle, researcher at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Energy Research Centre (ERC).

Back in 2007, the national Department of Transport (DoT) was already getting nervous about the growing number of private cars in the country, as the middle class here swelled. And the trend was set to increase. In its public transport strategy, the DoT was clear about this: if our cities are to be sustainable, equitable, liveable, and congestion-free, work commuters need to get out of private cars and into public transport.

There has also been a bit of a buzz around electric cars here in the past 15 years. Besides the many electric and hybrid imports, like Toyota’s Prius and the Nissan Leaf, there was the locally-developed Joule, a wholly South African designed and produced electric car. It was made by a local company, and funded by private interests and the Department of Science and Technology, but folded in 2012 because the developing company struggled to take it from prototype to production line.

The problem with South Africa’s cities, where the bulk of us live these days (some 60%), is that they’re literally tarred and cemented into a sprawling layout that is unfair towards the poor. The apartheid state deliberately pushed the labour class out onto the margins of its cities, meaning workers had to travel great distances to and from work every day.

The huge cost of these workday commutes, and the resulting difficulty of accessing jobs, is still something borne by the urban poor, and, according to Prof Anthony Black from the UCT School of Economics, amounts to a tax on the poor.

Policy to green up our urban movement

If government wants to adopt a pro-poor, low carbon policy, one which allows the country to meet its international obligations regarding emissions reduction while still meeting its development goals, a good way to do this from an urban mobility perspective is to marry together an efficient, integrated public transport system and non-motorised transport, with policies that drive city densification and mixed land use.

Speaking after the ERC’s Development and Mitigation Forum in 2014, Black said this kind of ‘win-win’ policy is a better way of reducing per-person emissions of road users. It will also shorten commuter distances, ease traffic congestion, improve job access, and cut the cost of workday commuting.

The drive, though, should be to aim towards a more equitable and liveable city, according to Boulle.

‘Currently, our unfair transport system and high emissions are linked,’ he says. ‘If we plan and invest for public and non-motorised transport, and push for densification and mixed land use, then we move to a city that has far more equitable mobility levels, and emissions will come down as a result of this.’

Government could pour its transport-related ‘green’ investment money into subsidising the rollout of electrical vehicles, and building the infrastructure needed to support such a fleet. But this, Black says, would amount to a subsidy for the wealthy since electric cars are generally the preserve of high income users.

At the moment, the city layout isn’t in favour of a cost effective public transport system. Our cities are sprawling, and there’s a clear distinction between suburbs, and business or industry hubs. This means commuters tend to hop onto buses, trains or taxis, and complete one long ride to work, and one back again.

Ideally, says Boulle, for a cost effective system, you want large numbers of people using the system, and a high rate of ‘seat renewal’. For instance, you want at least three commuters to use a seat, per trip, on a route. And you only get more commuters in transit, and more bums on seats, if you have a dense city that has mixed-uses such as living and businesses hubs integrated throughout the cityscape. This way, you have more people hopping on and off public transport more often.

Government funding and policy here in SA show that the state does intend investing for more public transport, for instance through pushing for integrated rapid public transport networks and putting funding towards building the right infrastructure. The hope that the surge in private car ownership will slow, and that rich people will abandon their cars and hop onto the next public transport option.

‘If you want an equitable transport system,’ says Boulle, ‘there’s no way you can argue for private car ownership, whether it’s electric or not. Private can’t beat public, in the case of transport.’

By the numbers:

According to the National Household Travel Survey, most South Africans (almost 40%) use the minibus taxis to get to and from work each day, even though they say the drivers are often reckless, and the fares are high. In cities, these taxis take nearly a third of all work commuters between home and work, while trains take nearly 10% of commuters, and buses just 6%.

Private vehicles account for 38% of work-day commutes (this doesn’t necessarily correlate to private car ownership).

Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist, and currently works as a fellow with the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Humanities of the South, where she is looking at the political economy of the food system in her country.


Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her work focuses on climate change, energy policy, urban food security, and giving communications support to various academic and civil society organisations.

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