Not enough reasons to celebrate Transport Month, yet

October was important for the 278 municipalities in South Africa as it heralded the start of transport month. However, for the urban metros in particular it provided the opportunity and platform to share knowledge and information about how they are transforming our public transport facilities into an effective and reliable system that accommodates the needs of all urban residents.

The challenge that they are faced with is how to ensure that public transport forms an integral component of the built environment context and contributes towards the form, shape and overall characteristic makeup of a city so that it is economically productive, ecologically sustainable and socially inclusive.  It is impossible to speak about public transportation in isolation of efficient and transformative land-use management tools and systems or without reference to effectively planned human settlements. As we approach twenty years of democracy in South Africa our built environment context remains stubbornly characterised by poor spatial layout, impoverished peripheral settlements, poor integration and separate development.

While celebrating transport month, we should encourage debates about public transport to be cognisant of our spatial legacy. The conversation about public transport is a conversation about the future of our cities and those who live in them. Thus, we need to elevate the transport debate beyond specific or individual components, such as the debate about Bus Rapid Transportation (BRT), e-Tolls in Gauteng province, limitations of the BRT in Cape Town or the lack of BRT in other cities. As much as these affect different groups of society, especially in a tough economic climate, these conversations in isolation do not take us much further. As our democracy matures and we grapple with what has been achieved over the past two decades and reflect on the gaps, it is important that we steer the debate to consider what is needed to further consolidate democracy in South Africa.

The reality is that we continue to deal with the effects of apartheid spatial engineering which are inextricably linked with how our cities and economy function, how transformative our interventions and investments in the built environment have been, and the impact that this has on broader society and city residents. Despite their intentions, municipal governments have not successfully managed to move beyond traditional and existing spatial planning and investments (complicated by untransformed systems and tools), exacerbating unequal spatial form. Unless there is a more conscious effort to transform the built environment we will not achieve the developmental intentions in the National Development Plan (NDP). We need integrated land-use management and planning where public transport and human settlements are central in the vision to improve mobility, accessibility, and livelihoods.

How can metros respond better?   

With the core of the challenges existing in urban metros, a different approach is needed for cities. The 1999 White Paper on Local Government articulated a vision of developmental local government in which municipalities are able to directly provide for their residents. This is becoming a reality as cities are soon to receive the responsibility for public transport and housing (whereby the function and associated funding will be devolved from province to local governments). Together with the responsibility for land-use planning and management, being given these additional functions will for the first time allow city governments the opportunity to make the necessary interventions to transform their cities.

In order to do the above, urban municipalities need relevant transport related skills, expertise and capacity. The particular skills required at local is very different to that required at provincial or national spheres of government as urban municipal officials have to respond to a great deal of complexity and nuance. Not only should these be actively recruited but they should be honed and retained in order to bring about the necessary change in our metros.

Working in an integrated manner is essential and it is not impossible for government to work in an integrated manner, as evidenced by the 2010 FIFA World Cup experience. This requires vision, innovation, commitment, and the tools and determination — critical elements when dealing with both our historical legacy and building South African cities of the future.

Rallying around the need for effective, safe, reliable transport that serves ALL in the city can be a catalyst for the transformation that is needed. It will also elevate the conversation beyond the limited transport boxes that currently exist. Transport month provides a critical opportunity that cannot be missed as transport interventions have short- to long-term implications, from how we respond to the current needs of citizens to how we consolidate the democratic project. But most importantly, we have to ask ourselves what kind of cities we are building and what legacy we are leaving for the future generation.


Sithole Mbanga and Stacey-Leigh Joseph are affiliated with the South African Cities Network.

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