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Cape Town mobility will rise like a phoenix if we collaborate with innovative modes of transport

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Mikhail Manuel is reading for his PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. His research focuses on the Global South paratransit sector, the political economy of passenger transport in South Africa, Bus-Rapid-Transit, sustainable low-carbon mobility, and government capacity development.

Taxi owners are wise businesspeople: in the absence of effective planning, investment and regulation, their violence is a regulatory mechanism.

Mobility in Cape Town is in crisis. 

Public transport bus operator, Golden Arrow, had to be escorted by City law enforcement officers on Monday, making sure passengers got home safely. This, after Golden Arrow reduced their services for the evening peak to protect the safety of their drivers and passengers. 

The safety concerns came after what is believed to be a spillover of yet another spate of taxi-related violence – a Golden Arrow driver was shot in the mouth on Monday morning. This latest brawl within the taxi industry over lucrative routes has claimed 22 lives since the beginning of July. The two rival associations, Cata and Codeta, stopped operating on all their routes across Cape Town within a week of each other, effectively reducing taxi operations to naught

One can understand the nature of violence in the taxi industry – it’s a self-regulatory tool facilitated by oversupply and initiated by the hasty industry deregulation of the 1980s. One can also understand the response from Golden Arrow to protect the lives of their drivers, while trying their utmost to assist passengers. 

However, the shock to the system came after Metrorail’s announcement at 3.30pm on Monday that their southern line and Cape Flats line would be temporarily suspended due to “faulty equipment failure”. This, together with the fact that the central line is almost non-existent, is the root cause of our mobility crisis.

When all was said and done, at the evening peak on Monday, Cape Town was effectively without public transport. 

Sadly, Brett Herron, a member of the Western Cape legislature, has used this opportunity to play politics by misleading the public about the complex facts he claims to know so much about. Herron also leaves out that which should make all of us brim with optimism – that, when faced with a crisis, Capetonians partner for solutions. That willingness to collaborate under difficult circumstances, with the leadership of a capable government, means that time and time again, pulls together and emerges stronger. 

Firstly, the complex facts. Metrorail is the responsibility of the national government, which has simply not invested in urban rail in Cape Town for at least a decade. There have been many promises but absolutely no delivery. 

Golden Arrow is a private service provider operating on a subsidy from the provincial government, but funded by the national government. National government has failed to implement its plan to introduce tender-based competition for bus routes, and as a result, operators like Golden Arrow have been kept on short-term interim contracts for the last 21 years, with subsidies increasingly being outstripped by the cost of fuel and maintenance. This was confirmed by the Competition Commission’s 2021 inquiry into the land-based public transport sector

Cape Town’s MyCiti bus service is the responsibility of local government and receives the bulk of its funding through grant subsidies. Unfortunately, it has also proven to be less fruitful than initially expected, as City officials tried to wrap their heads around the suitability of a bus rapid transit service as a tool to reform the minibus taxi industry. However, there is hope that MyCiti will still prove to be impactful in the long run. 

The taxi industry, on the other hand, has been able to exploit the failures of our incompetent national government. While it remains the only public transport service that can respond with the agility that the South African public demands, it is oversupplied, rides roughshod over the rules of the road and is riddled with violence. The industry associations also understand their sheer political power, hence it is now largely held that the taxi industry is more powerful than the government. Just think back to the Covid-19 capacity regulations: taxis convinced the government to allow 100% passenger loading during the height of the first wave, while all other modes of transport had to reduce their capacity. 

As I have said before, taxi owners are wise businesspeople: their violence is a regulatory mechanism. Rather than today’s dire situation being the fault of inadequate leadership, as the honourable Herron suggests, it is an example of how the national government’s sheer incompetence has left Cape Town residents stranded yet again. 

How to remain optimistic?

So how can we remain optimistic and hopeful during this difficult time? Three relatively recent events teach us a lot about our resolve as a people: Day Zero, Covid-19 and the Table Mountain wildfire. 

Day Zero was not a great time to live in Cape Town – bucket showers, sparse toilet flushes and queuing for spring water. But what did we achieve? We partnered and reduced water consumption by more than 50%, going on to become global leaders in water resilience for climate change. 

Covid-19 has been dire – there are people dying, widespread job losses and genuine concern about where households will get their next meal. But what did we achieve? We partnered and saw the creation of community networks and local government initiatives to support people in need, all the while driving effective solutions to the pandemic which saw the Cape Town Covid-19 crisis coordinating team win global recognition for our “whole-system” response. 

The Table Mountain wildfire was a tragedy – our city was gripped by helplessness as the massive blaze ripped across the mountain. The efforts of our firefighters galvanised residents to partner wherever they could… students worked together to save Fuller Hall and families delivered food and supplies to Roeland Street fire station. 

These three events are clear examples of how residents come together in difficult times and each time, we come out stronger as a city. This is why we will find a solution to our public transport woes. And the solution will be led by one thing – a capable government facilitating partnerships that drive innovative solutions. 

Cape Town is awash with innovative mobility initiatives. 

My primary reference here is not the Blue Dot Taxi Pilot Service, Seventh Avenue Taxi Operating Company Pilot or Phase 2A MyCiti rollout. Instead, I am drawing your attention to the Langa Bicycle Hub, Open Streets Cape Town Bicycle Travel Diaries, ChildSafe Safe Travel To School Programme, GoMetro, Whereismytransport, Uber, Didi, Bolt, Greencab, University of the Western Cape’s electric mobility battery research, Golden Arrow Electric Buses, and the City of Cape Town’s free electric vehicle charging stations. 

These are people working across local and provincial government, civil society, the private sector and communities to find solutions to the mobility crisis in Cape Town. These initiatives span cycling, scholar transport, minibus taxi services, cutting edge mobility mapping, e-hailing, electric mobility and bus services. 

We will find solutions among this swathe of initiatives: all it will take is partnership. That is our hope. DM/MC 

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  • I just wish we could cut National Government out of it and stop them hampering the Western Cape. Without them, we can become truly great.