Building the Puzzle of Public Transport in Cape Town

MyCitijpg (1)The views are spectacular. Down below the spaceship-like Cape Town Stadium sits almost perfectly in the landscape, adjacent to the world famous V&A Waterfront marked by the big turning wheel, and the glistening Atlantic Ocean just ahead framing this urban spectacle.

This is the view from the MyCiTi bus, the new integrated bus rapid transit system, as it rises up the hill of High Level Road on the 105 route to my apartment in Three Anchor Bay. Its an incredible city and urban experience in itself. The service is consistently expanding and connecting new parts of the city, bus route by bus route, with the integrated nature of the roll-out including cycle routes, and improved walking routes in some cases.

MyCiTi, while years in planning, was really accelerated as a result of the deadline of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which required a high capacity transport service from the city centre to Cape Town Stadium the match venue. This was supplemented by Airport Express service, and over the last few years, a dedicated service up the West Coast, multiple routes across the City Centre even reaching the Waterfront, Camps Bay and Hout Bay, and soon, an express service to the Metro South-East including Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha, where the majority of previously disadvantaged people live.

The system comprises two types of routes: Trunk routes which use larger and longer buses on dedicated lanes with a specific surfaces, to ensure high capacity services and use enclosed glass-box stations. Feeder routes use smaller, shorter buses, which stop on the side of the road, using normal bus stops that are not enclosed but might offer some cover. A smart card system allowing one to tap on and tap off on buses on feeder routes and at stations at trunk routes has already received an international award, while the card doubles up as a debit card to make small purchases at local shops.

To make things even easier all of the bus routes have now been added to Google Maps, so like getting around in London or New York, finding the best route to my destination is simple.

The project has not been without its problem with delays due to appeals and opposition from other transport operators, a schedule which at times seems to be more of a suggestion than something to rely on, and issues like poor ventilation on feeder buses having to be resolved in a short period of time.

I really would love to see the poor levels of lighting around major stations improved at night, and the pedestrian crossing times changed so that getting to a bus station safely is a brisk walk and not a sprint.

That said, the project is both one of connection and cohesion. Connection in terms of infrastructure and our city’s spatial plan,  and cohesion, in terms of integrating people and their stories.

In terms of connection the service does not seek to replace rail, which is the backbone of our public transport system moving hundreds of thousands of commuters across the city, but rather seeks to fill in the gaps and serve highly congested areas.

The express service to the Metro South East is a result of the poor capacity and service levels of the rail service into the City Centre, and therefore MyCiTi will play a supporting role, until the new trains arrive.

Public transport and in particular the MyCiTi system defies the grand plans and legacy of apartheid to separate people, and the diversity on each bus, from moms with kids, to school children from local public and private schools, to the elderly, to the hipster, to the student and business person, is a big part of the story of inclusiveness and social cohesion.

The service has been so successful that many citizens in different parts of the city, perhaps already served by rail or other public transport services, have been requesting that the service be extended to their neighbourhoods. One solution is the formation of a new entity, Transport for Cape Town, which will aim to integrate all public transport services ensuring one timetable, one level of service, security and branding etc., which ultimately connects more people and places through different modes and nodes, while maintaining a level of service.

The most exciting part is the public transport culture that is already developing and seeing familiar faces on the bus, while cool new developments like a skate park under a bridge, adjacent to the Gardens Station should make for an interesting and vibrant public realm. But, its the “thank you” to the bus driver when most passengers are getting off, that has been surprising, and a gesture I hope will remain.

The continued roll out of MyCiTi over the next few decades, as it connects more communities and more people with each new route is a process of telling new stories and creating new experiences, that, each day helps form, mould and build the beautiful puzzle of our city Cape Town.