Opinionista Ian Ollis 19 August 2013

Bus Crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay

There is dire need for accessible, affordable mass public transport across South Africa. The Bus Rapid Transit system was supposed to cure this woe, but implementation has been slow and mismanaged, especially in municipalities like Nelson Mandela Bay.

South Africa’s need for mass public transport is obvious. Urbanisation was artificially slowed under Apartheid and we are left with distorted urban spatial geography and land use in SA, coupled with an antiquated public transport “network”. Cue the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. Over a number of years in the mid 2000s, government took politicians responsible for public transport on trips to South America to investigate how people travel in cities like Bogotá, Sao Paulo and the like. This essentially led to the creation of government policy to opt for BRT to become the future mainstay of citywide mass public transport in South Africa. Our rail system was antiquated and expensive to run, taxis were dangerous, overloaded, unruly and poorly maintained and commuter and city busses were ruled out of the equation (why, I can’t say).

In 2013, however, we are sitting at the other end of a lengthy roll out process that has produced mostly poor results across the country. We have only two limited systems operational in Joburg and Cape Town, and the money spent has been astronomical.

Even though it was planned in 2008, the people of Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (NMBM) are still without a public transport system that could be characterised as integrated, safe, scheduled, affordable and reliable. I have visited the city twice in two years in an attempt to ride on the system and both times the busses were locked up and parked far away from the action because of some crisis or other, whether with taxi operators or implementing agents.

Persistent problems with this Integrated Public Transport System (IPTS), relating to bad management and poor implementation, have occurred since inception. Since I last visited in April 2012 the “quick fix” approach to address problems identified with the Port Elizabeth IPTS have been a disaster. Problems observed recently include: the impracticality of designated bus lanes; Zebra crossings that obstruct traffic flow; and design flaws such as the placement of bus stations and incorporated taxi stops creating safety problems. The current project manager was apparently fired three days before I arrived, and the city is set to lose R300-million because they have not followed treasury procedures.

From 2008 to 2013 this project has been through four or five different sets of engineers and four projects managers. City managers and mayors in Nelson Mandela Bay have been changed as often as you and I change underwear, and this kind of administration only leads to wasteful expenditure (and there has been much) and very poor roll out.

The IPTS project is being implemented by a steering committee, headed by the deputy executive mayor. The members of this steering committee are all from the ANC. Opposition parties have been sidelined from providing effective oversight.

During a visit in April 2012, I requested then minister of transport S’bu Ndebele to intervene to end the chaos with the PE IPTS. A year later, we asked the recently reshuffled minister of transport Ben Martins to take action. A year and six months later, no action has been taken by the national Department of Transport and we have yet another new minister.

To fix the system, the council will need to include opposition parties in the NMBM project steering committee. The IPTS project steering committee is a committee of council and needs to be reconstituted to be representative. If not, it renders the committee and its decisions undemocratic and clearly chaotic.

As with e-tolls, greater public engagement is urgently required in order for the IPTS to address local needs. Residents and commuters had very little input into routes and placement of stations, which affect their lives.

On 29 January 2013 NMBM handed over 19 buses, bought during the 2010 Soccer World Cup, to a consortium as the start of the IPTS. At that time the municipality has already spent more than R300-million on infrastructural developments in preparation of the IPTS and what followed was three years of engagement between the national Department of Transport, the municipality and the local taxi industry to determine an operational plan for the IPTS. Yet no workable solution has been found and an audit report of the IPTS infrastructure constructed in Port Elizabeth is still outstanding. This audit report from Bigen Africa must be made public in order to derive an agreed rescue plan for the IPTS. Hiding the bodies does nothing to address the problem.

Practically speaking, the drop-off and pick-up spots of the dedicated IPTS bus stations and bus lanes must be re-engineered, together with implementation of adequate lane width. Traffic flow must be improved for the IPTS bus stations and stops to cater for busses, cars and large trucks must be implemented. In Northend, many shops and businesses had their buildings damaged because of poorly engineered bus lanes –large trucks could no longer turn in lanes allocated for them.

When this has all been sorted, the bus system will need to be re-launched with an advertising campaign. However, it seems that this municipality is in such dire circumstances that the finance minister and local government minister were called in to inspect the city administration last week. Crisis indeed. One hopes that they inspect the IPTS as well.

This IPTS must be properly integrated with existing public transport for efficiency, with a similar payment method and frequent arrival and departure times to ensure ease of travel. Nelson Mandela Bay deserves better! DM

Ollis is a DA MP. You can follow him on @ianollis

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