We have learnt to expect that every large project, with a fixed delivery date and no option of cancellation, will fall hostage to event kidnappers: interest groups with a single issue at stake, and only their own interests at heart, who are skilled at hijacking the expectations of entire cities and countries to their eleventh-hour demands.
On 23 January 2013, Kylie Hatton, the City of Cape Town’s media manager, spoke on radio about the current issues relating to the postponement of the much-anticipated Central City to Salt River Station feeder bus route. It appears that, for all the demonstable and long-overdue public benefit of this project, the usual event kidnappers reared their heads.
Deaf to all argument of the feeder bus route’s importance to those who live along it, transport monopolies such as the taxi industry and Golden Arrow bus service have also seen fit to monopolise the debate around the delivery date of this service. The main objection raised by Golden Arrow is that they are unhappy with the city’s decision of applying for all nine feeder routes at the same time when no contractors for the other routes have been awarded. On the other hand, the taxi industry caused a second postponement of the first scheduled hearings as they were not prepared. We still don’t know their official reason for objecting.
Whether the taxi industry’s demands are entirely reasonable or not, it remains true that the voice of a very important group has not been heard: that of the commuters. This brings us to a traditional political problem, one that has been written about extensively. Debates around many issues – from taxes to farm subsidies – are easily warped by a very small but highly organised group who advocate for their own interests knowing that they harm the majority. However, for any given person in the majority, that harm is too small to move them to action.
That is how a small highly-organised interest group – a few hundred taxi drivers and a big monopolistic bus company – has the audacity to withhold an expansion of transport options, a savings in time and money, and a safer route to work for tens of thousands of people for however many months.
The truth is, of course, that at this point, with so many millions invested, the BRT systems are inevitable. They will be implemented, regardless of these delay tactics and over the objections of so-called stakeholders. The question is only when, and to whose timetable, rather than if. It also occurred to me, however, that the debate around the timeframe is incomplete because entrenched concerns in the transport industry have the power to delay and obstruct, while there is no counterweight to their interests: no one represents the ordinary commuters and the broader public who must do without workable transport for longer.
This happens in other cities too, in different departments – but mobility is one of the most serious in which this problem has the longest-lasting effects. In Johannesburg these delays are already costing the municipality millions of Rands. Soon, Durban, Pretoria and many other smaller municipalities will begin a similar long, unnecessary battle to provide their citizens with the world-class, safe and reliable transport systems they deserve. Industry participation is necessary, but not unwarranted objections. I believe that these objections should not be even considered, because these transport services are needed not in 5 years time, but today.
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Sound clip of Kylie Hatton speaking about the challenges with the MyCiTi bus project.
Back to the current MyCiTi bus Salt River route saga with its expected launch date of December 2012, now moved to some time after February 2013. The sad part of this is that the City with its many delays, was in fact ready to operate this route as all the infrastructure was completed on time, before the scheduled launch date. Many people would have used this route; it would have been ready for Cape Town’s busiest season of the year, when tourists domestic and international flock to our shores. Also, District 6 will for the first time in perhaps five decades get public transport to make the area more accessible.
As I’m no expert when it comes to legislation or policies, I would like to ask the question, not just for Cape Town, but for cities across the world: when a government service (especially one that might be considered a basic human right) is so needed/demanded, why does it need to jump through the same number of hoops as inessential projects? Why can’t these projects be expedited, in recognition of the fact that housing, healthcare, education and jobs are all accessed and made real only through and by mobility.
As I’m writing this, I feel powerless; and then I imagine the Kilimanjaro-sized speed bump coming up later this year when the City will want to expand the MyCiTi services into Khayelitsha with their N2 Express service. Will we all sit back and wait while the City, again, fights the taxi industry and Golden Arrow? Or will we do something about it?