Johannesburg Rolls Out New BRT Routes Against Odds
Violent taxi strikes in Johannesburg fail to halt the progress of the city's new BRT system. Photo by

Violent taxi strikes in Johannesburg fail to halt the progress of the city's new BRT system. Photo by

On Monday, despite a two-week delay, violent opposition, vandalism and a minibus taxi strike, Johannesburg successfully rolled out new Rea Vaya BRT routes in the Soweto township.

As we reported previously, South Africa’s first BRT system began a starter service last August consisting of one trunk route between Soweto and downtown but lacking some of the traditional BRT features such as an automatic fare system or real-time vehicle control.

Rea Vaya incorporates two types of buses:

  • Articulated 18-meter high-floor buses with right-hand doors for level boarding at median stations
  • Standard 13-meter high-floor buses with doors on both sides; left-hand doors have steps and a wheelchair lift for curbside boarding

And it operates three types of routes:

  • Trunk routes – articulated buses operate in median separated busways, docking at BRT stations
  • Feeder routes – standard buses stop at curbside bus stops, and deliver passengers to BRT stations where they can transfer to trunk routes
  • Complementary routes – a hybrid route on which standard buses operate curbside like feeders, and then enter the trunk route’s separated busway to access the BRT stations

The BRT’s phased implementation includes the starter service, Phase 1A, Phase 1B and eventually full Phase 1.  The starter service is being upgraded to Phase 1A in two steps. Monday’s expansion added a new complementary route from Soweto to downtown Johannesburg, and three feeder routes in other parts of Soweto.  Full Phase 1A scheduled for May includes an additional complimentary and feeder routes in Soweto, two inner-city loop routes and extended service hours.

The first part of the starter service expansion was delayed by two weeks from its original target opening of March 1. After the United Taxi Association Forum (UTAF) expressed concerns about the new feeder routes and frustration at being excluded from BRT operator contract negotiations, city officials agreed to postpone the new services to facilitate more inclusive negotiations. But UTAF leadership abandoned talks with the city and went on strike Friday in protest, saying “there’s a stay-away due to the insistence of the City of Joburg to continue with its BRT system. They want to use our routes, which are our intellectual property.”

Friday night, a Rea Vaya bus was shot during a drive-by shooting . The taxi strike continued through Tuesday, straining the commuter rail and BRT systems, and leaving some commuters stranded.  And according to this news report, commuters waiting in long BRT queues were threatened, BRT infrastructure was vandalized, and police were deployed to escort Rea Vaya buses along the new Soweto routes.

In a statement Monday, the provincial government reaffirmed their commitment to Rea Vaya saying, “No amount of violence will stop the BRT system.”

From the project’s beginning in 2006, the city chose to negotiate the 12-year bus operations contract with local affected taxi operators instead of opening a competitive tender. Taxi operators affected by BRT routes could exchange their operating licenses for equity in the new bus operating company, and compensation would be on a per kilometer basis instead of per passenger as many taxi drivers are accustomed to.

Discussions between the city and taxi industry have been ongoing since 2006 and are now facilitated by independent mediators. While some segments of the taxi industry are hesitant to come to the table, others have begun accepting new employment with Rea Vaya, driving, refueling and cleaning the BRT buses.

(At this year’s Transforming Transportation conference Aimee Gauthier, Africa Senior Program Director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, discussed some of the challenges of transforming the taxi industry in Johannesburg. Check out a video of her presentation.)

Unfortunately the taxi industry is not Rea Vaya’s only vocal opponent.

Residents of Johannesburg’s wealthier northern suburbs oppose the Phase 1B plans, citing concerns about increased traffic, air and noise pollution, pedestrian safety, increased crime and devaluation of properties. This recent feature in The New York Times suggests that the suburban opposition to Rea Vaya is a symptom of the racial and class divides that persist in post-Apartheid South Africa.

The one third of Johannesburg residents who commute daily by public transport are also important project stakeholders, albeit less organized and vocal ones. Good thing that transport officials seem to be keeping commuters’ interests in mind. In a statement Friday, National Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele said, “as government, we will not compromise the rights of commuters.  In conjunction with provinces and municipalities we have long been engaging and will continue to engage with the taxi industry. However, the mandate of the Department of Transport is to provide safe, efficient and reliable public transport,”

And in his State of the City Address last week, Johannesburg Executive Mayor, Councilor Amos Masondo called on all Rea Vaya stakeholders to come together to create a world-class public transport system for the benefit of Johannesburg’s residents:

The City and our partners will continue to extend Rea Vaya and create a broader integrated transport system that will be second to none in the world.

Our doors remain open and we welcome input from all stakeholders, ranging from Taxi Associations, commuter organisations and communities.

Those elements who are trying to derail the process through intimidation or threats of violence will meet with the full force of the law. We will not allow anarchy to derail a public transport system that is so vital for the future of Johannesburg and its residents.

Johannesburg seems to have the political will to find a way to resolve the myriad of challenges facing Rea Vaya. As the BRT system continues to improve and expand over the coming months, hopefully other stakeholders will also find reason to get on board.

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