Will a public transport lifestyle be a possibility in South African cities?

Gail Jennings from Ride Your City and Mobility Magazine takes a look at the possibility if a ‘public transport lifestyle’ of many international cities would work in South Africa. 

There is no doubt that over the last few years, transport planning has shifted its focus from a car-oriented focus to ‘public transport first.’ This is reflected not only in new zoning schemes and parking requirements, but also in funding priorities that have facilitated the introduction of new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors and High Speed Rail (HSR) links. The completed BRTs and Gautrain have shown that public transport can provide an appealing transport option and attract a new kind of user to the system.

Despite this positive policy-shift, a shift in public behaviour has yet to follow – largely because many municipalities continue to focus on the provision of a generic technical solution, instead of understanding and addressing a wide range of complementary and, in some cases, contradictory user needs. The introduction of a new system such as BRT or a scheduled bus service will, without incorporating different user needs, not provide an acceptable transport option for all.

It is not enough to introduce new services and hard infrastructure: the encouragement of public transport use also requires a series of supporting measures outside the transport domain, such as changes to land use and, of course, marketing. These measures need to address the full spectrum of issues that may be associated with making public transport a lifestyle, or a smart choice for the majority of residents.

What is a ‘lifestyle’? It’s a bundle of behaviours that makes sense to both others and ourselves in a given time and place, including social relations, consumption, entertainment, and dress. The behaviours and practices within lifestyles are a mixture of habits, conventional ways of doing things, and reasoned actions. A lifestyle defines who you are and how you choose to deal with many conflicts and issues that arise in your life. Although people like to think of a lifestyle as something of their creation, lifestyles are often influenced by many outside factors…

In the transport environment, this mix of habits, values and reasoned actions become apparent in activity, trip purpose, and choice of route and mode. A public transport-orientated lifestyle is one where people need (or want) to travel, and where the public transport opportunity exists to provide access to most activities.

Opportunities, however, are not dependent on the individual. They are co-determined by the land use and the transport planning professions, and include urban design (the urban fabric), infrastructure, operations, and communication and marketing. If even one of these ‘opportunity’ components is underdeveloped, the ‘opportunity’ will be unable to meet the needs of travellers. These components together, and not infrastructure and operations alone, will determine the actual and perceived opportunity – in other words, the existence of a bus service alone will not give a potential user enough reason to use it.

There is no doubt that the urban fabric (in terms of spatial distribution of activities and urban design) influences travel behaviour. Appropriate urban fabric is needed to provide public transport in an economically sustainable manner, as a certain user threshold is required. As a result, public transport is likely to provide a better service, and thus a better opportunity for users, in cities that are well designed, and have a diversity of land uses at appropriate densities.

The urban environment around South African public transport interchanges, however, is mostly poor, which creates an experience that is unsatisfying to current users and prohibitive to potential new users. Changing the urban fabric in support of a public transport lifestyle is a long-term process and requires conviction and strong leadership to drive transformation – but it is a long way from being impossible.

Improved operations, with additional services, different alternatives and reliable schedules, can also increase the motivation to travel. Quite simply, the current situation does not encourage a public transport lifestyle. South African public transport vehicles are aged and offer limited convenience, comfort and experience to users. Trains are crowded, poorly cleaned and badly maintained. The fleet of conventional buses consists partly of poor-quality old vehicles, except for a limited number of new low-floor buses that operate in specific areas. Minibus taxis have been improved as a result of the taxi recapitalisation programme, but are still characterised by overcrowding and unsafe driving practice. Only commuter rail and BRT provide regular scheduled services throughout the day. Also, only BRT and the business express trains provide travel times that are reasonably competitive with private cars during peak hours. Other operations are slow and experience the same traffic conditions as private cars. There is no integrated ticketing system in place.

Communication and marketing are also essential to create a public transport lifestyle. Marketing and information campaigns can increase awareness, change community perceptions and highlight advantages of a specific service. In fact, the lack of ‘image’ is one of the reasons public transport users aspire to own a private car. In South Africa, the public transport system is not marketed as a whole, and each operator does its own marketing to a greater or lesser extent. In many cases marketing is targeted at the existing users, with no campaigns to attract new users to the system. There is virtually no coordination.

Although in Cape Town, as one example, there is a transport information centre that provides information to users about all public transport operations, none of the operators publish schedules in print form, which limits access to information that should ideally be available in as many forms as possible.

So, is all lost? Can car-owners be persuaded to shift to public transport? Of course we can. The lifestyle with which we associate ourselves depends on our perceptions, experiences, attitude and values. Behaviour can be influenced from different angles, which in turn co-determine lifestyle. In South Africa, it is not a lack of good practice, but rather the lack of integration between different components, the lack of transferability of best practice between operators, and the lack of coordination between land use and transport planning that prevents the anticipated shift to public transport. Pockets of excellence are not enough. Public transport can only be fully unlocked by combining all excellent elements into one public transport experience. It requires more than a technical solution, and only a full package of interventions can provide the optimal environment in which a public transport-orientated lifestyle is the norm rather than the exception.

Article originally posted on Ride Your City on 28 June 2012 by Gail Jennings.

Erwin van Dijk and Gerhard Hitge will be speaking at the Southern African Transport Conference on Wednesday, 11 July 2012 at 16:30. For more information or to register, book your tickets at www.satc.org.za.

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