It’s been four years since the first MyCiti bus route started operating between Cape Town’s Civic Centre and Tableview. Characterised by features beyond those of traditional bus services, such as exclusive bus lanes, frequent timetables and an automated fare system, MyCiti is Cape Town’s version of Bus Rapid Transport (BRT). It is an unprecedented public transport venture for the city, implemented in the hope of providing greater mobility to the majority of the population.
This year will see the completion of phase one, which has expanded to areas throughout the city centre and further north to places such as Joe Slovo Park and Atlantis. Phase two is soon to commence, which will service areas of the highest public transport demand including Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha, low-income areas disadvantaged by their distances from the amenities and employment opportunities nearer to the centre.
It seems a fitting time to take stock and see how the system is faring. From MyCiti’s inception, considered caution has been raised about the City’s backing of BRT to address citizens’ transport needs. A 2013 article published by GroundUp effectively explains the drastic difference in density between Cape Town and other cities where BRT has been successful, such as Curitiba in Brazil and Bogotá in Colombia, and questions whether MyCiti was “what Cape Town truly needed.”
In 2015, is MyCiti sustaining itself? Are the routes being used enough to justify its costs, or has its expenditure and infrastructural interventions amounted to a slick-looking system that hasn’t been embraced by the citizens it is expected to serve?
To address these questions, I interviewed Michael Boulle and Jacob Tzaegaegbe, two researchers who have studied BRT in various capacities, from documenting the progress of MyCiti in Cape Town, to examining BRT systems around the world respectively. What results is a more complex conversation than my initial criteria for evaluating MyCiti’s current standing, which extends beyond costs, infrastructure and the lapse of four short years.
Boulle, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre, undertook research through the MAPS programme to better understand the implementation process of MyCiti up to now. Boulle’s main concerns going forward include how to increase low ridership levels, particularly among private vehicle users, and the complex task of further integrating MyCiti with the minibus taxi industry, a dominant player in Cape Town’s public transport realm.
Underlying the issue of low ridership levels is the greater dilemma as to how effectively BRT can operate within Cape Town’s urban form. Boulle highlights the challenges of implementing BRT in a city characterised by long travelling distances for residents, meaning less seat renewal and thus less revenue than in other denser cities, as well as peak periods when busses are virtually empty on their return trips.
These challenges reflect the problem that introducing BRT into a city’s fabric needs to extend beyond providing mere transport infrastructure. Tzegaegbe has studied the approaches of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) in this regard. In his master’s dissertation at the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London, Tzegaegbe analysed six BRT systems around the world, including the Rea Vaya BRT system in Johannesburg. Ideal for a successful BRT system, he explains, is the concerted effort to develop urban areas around transit-oriented principles. Measures such as zoning land for dense, high-rise development around BRT corridors and constraining development further away from them would increase the ridership needed for BRT in Cape Town to be as impactful as possible.
But Tzegaegbe is quick to concede that these measures are complex to introduce in reality. In Cape Town, an established city characterised by a sprawled urban form, attempting to follow TOD ideals brings about a chicken-and-egg conundrum.
Boulle agrees: “Do you put in the BRT system and then change the land as a result of it? If it’s not connected, development won’t come beforehand.”
Tzegaegbe also points out that TOD isn’t only a public funded initiative. “You need private developers on board too,” he explains, “and the private sector is likely going to want to wait and see the success of the system before that happens.”
Then what might be the solution? There is no straight answer, but one safe guess has to do with the matter of time. Boulle and Tzegaegbe see little point in making a call on how successful MyCiti has been four years into its lifetime. The time horizon for such a scheme – which aims to have connected the entire city by 2030 – must take into account the long and difficult processes of navigating land changes, poor spatial legacies, uncertainty surrounding the minibus taxi industry, and major shifts in societal attitudes towards public transport. Tzegaegbe illustrates this long-term vision with the example of London’s sewerage system, built in the Victorian era.
“When it was built, it was definitely overbuilt,” he says. “If you look at the horizon 10 years after it was built, you’d ask, why did they build it so large? We’re never going to use it. But London to this day is benefitting from its huge capacity.”
But what about the costs? MyCiti’s phase one’s capital investment totalled R5. 786 billion and for the 2014/15 year, 4% of the City’s rates – around R237 million – contributed to recurrent costs. As of March this year, the city had invested R6.5 billion in the MyCiTi service.
Boulle observes that the trunk route from Tableview to the Civic Centre is covering its operating costs, but the feeder routes are running at a loss. Ridership, especially in the traditionally car-reliant areas that MyCiti serves, needs to increase. A radical shift from reliance on private cars to public transport needs to occur in order for MyCiti to succeed.
But before evaluating MyCiti’s successes or failures on figures alone, Boulle highlights that virtually all public transport systems around the world operate on subsidies. Furthermore, he questions what the alternatives to BRT might be. “There’s massive investment in infrastructure to support our car-reliant society,” he says. “If we need to achieve the objective of the whole population having equitable mobility, private vehicles is not a cheap way of doing it. It’s a huge cost to society.”
For both Tzegaegbe and Boulle, the BRT system’s potential is representative of a healthy democracy. Such a characteristic, similar to environmental benefits, the mixing of different backgrounds, or more equitable access to amenities, can’t be fully evaluated through a cost-benefit analysis or other quantifiable measures. Tzegaegbe paraphrases a comparison by Enrique Peñalosa, who championed the BRT system when he was the mayor of Bogotá in Colombia, a city now renowned for its thriving public transport system. “He said one of the most eloquent things I’ve ever heard about transport: that thirty people on a bus can zoom past a Maserati with one person in, because thirty people should get thirty times the space as one person, no matter how much money they make. That’s true democracy.”
If perceived this way, Cape Town’s MyCiti has high ideals. As with any feature of democracy, it should be open to and reformed by criticism. But our job as citizens might require having long term vision, and a willingness to get on board.
Megan Tennant is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and has a background in English, film studies and urban geography. She is currently practising as an urban researcher, with recent involvement in projects focusing on township revitalisation and mother and child urban health.
Image via Warrenski.
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