Part 4 of my South Africa series
Imagine a public transportation system that combines the low cost and fixed routes of a bus, with the frequency and availability of a private taxi. The system would be idea: convenient, low-cost, and predictable. There’d be no fear the driver was taking you for a ride, and catching one would be as simple as waiting a few minutes at most on the roadside.
If you are lucky enough to live in Cape Town, you could enjoy such a system daily. That city’s minibus taxis are the local version of a type of transportation common throughout the world Wikipedia calls a “share taxi.” According to government data the country has some 126,000 of these vehicles operating mostly in the country’s cities.
Like a train system (which Cape Town also has), the buses run along fixed routes named after their final destination. Each bus is a small Toyota van with customized seats designed to maximize the vehicle’s occupancy. Most displayed signs advertising a maximum occupancy of roughly 16, but we rode in vans with as many as 21 people. Most buses are staffed by a two man crew. The driver drives as quickly as possible and controls the music, which can range from American disco and rap to Cape Malay music, almost always played loudly. The second person mans the van’s sliding door, and carries a sack of change. Most fares are around 4-5 Rand, or roughly $0.75, and generally paid with coins. The door operator also generally leans out the open window continuously whistling or shouting the destination, and otherwise heckling passersby to convince them they really need a lift where he is going. I noticed the city had created minibus-only lanes on the street along busy routes approaching the center city.
The vans will stop to pick up or let off passengers at any point on their route, although bus stops and major landmarks like the supermarket are common points. The routes terminate at government-built transit depots. In a huge structure above the Cape Town train station, thousands of vans converge from throughout the metropolitan area on a depot organized into dozens of lanes, one for each route. The service was clearly for locals: during our month stay were unable to locate a route map.
Although riding the minibuses can be a somewhat snug experience, particularly during peak times, we found the system to be inexpensive and efficient. Despite some harrowing driving, the van operators were almost uniformly polite and professional.
There are at least a couple reasons why such a system might not work in the U.S. First, I estimated that operating at maximum capacity a Minibus crew could earn 100 Rand an hour. If they had seven hours of peak operation a day (an optimistic estimate) they could earn 700 Rand, or roughly $100 dollars. After paying for gas and the van (many are rented from a company) there’s not much money left for the driver and door man. Although the actual wages must be low, we heard of factory jobs that paid $40 a day. Clearly, such a system would have to charge much more to make sense where labor was more expensive.
Second, the system thrives in an environment with low car ownership and relatively high density along most corridors. This ensures enough riders to support very frequent service along busy routes, making the service even more attractive to riders choosing between private vehicles, bus, or train. In rural areas transport was a problem and hitching a ride was common as taxis were much more expensive.
Two South African urban scholars have recently examined urban transport in that country in a text titled “Rethinking Urban Transport After Modernism: Lessons from South Africa.” Although the book is expensive to purchase in the states, Google Books has a preview with many pages from it. They conclude that current public transportation systems are not sustainable and urge a paradigm shift in the way transport is conceived, including:
- creating a decentralized pattern of accessibility to decentralize opportunity in the city (versus the modern, radial model centered on a downtown)
- create pedestrian friendly environments
- link transport to high densities of housing and land use
- design complete streets with a full range of uses in mind, not simply roads for cars
- and link transportation planning with urban design and urban planning.
These principles will sound familiar to American readers as they are also commonly discussed concepts in planning circles here. Although the book rightfully describes how the transportation structure of South African cities should evolve, I can’t help but be struck by the extent to which the minibus taxi system exemplifies many of the goals they envision: providing public, low-cost, pedestrian-oriented, point-to-point transport throughout the city.