Transport as a mode of justice

17 October 2017 | Story Lisa Boonzaier. Photo Joe Ross courtesy Creative Commons License.

Cape Town is a fragmented city. Poor, shanty towns of corrugated iron abut wealthy, green suburbs. Among the high-rise, glass-facade buildings in the city centre, homeless people use cardboard to protect themselves from the elements. Most of the low-income neighbourhoods are located on the city’s outskirts, far away from economic centres – and opportunities.

This fragmentation is a legacy of apartheid's spatial planning. And it's being reinforced by our transport system. This is according to Professor Mark Zuidgeest, a civil engineer and the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) Chair in Transportation Planning and Engineering at the university's Centre for Transport Studies.

“It is often the people who are least able to afford it who spend the longest amount of time and, relatively speaking, the most money in using the transport system to gain access to economic opportunities," he says, "if it is at all possible to reach these economic opportunities on time.”

Not only do the urban poor live on the edges of South Africa’s cities, but they are dependent on often inadequate public transport and non-motorised transport, like walking and cycling, to get around. This is certainly the case in Cape Town.

The overall goal of any transport system is to provide access to key opportunities and services, Zuidgeest explains. In a perfect system, every member of society would enjoy equal access to these opportunities. But such transport systems are simply an ideal; they don't exist. And when low-income groups are the most disadvantaged by limited accessibility, it becomes a matter of justice.

Accessibility and justice in Cape Town's transport system are issues that Zuidgeest and his students are beginning to tackle through their research. They are investigating topics such as how accessibility drives changes in land use, the impact of the (un)availability of public transport on low-income groups and developing an index of transport justice for the city.

Professor Karel Martens of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology recently presented a masterclass on the subject of justice in transport at the Centre for Transport Studies. His research has inspired the structuring and framing of some of the UCT researchers' ideas.

The aim of their research? "To generate insights into transport-related social exclusion and produce – specifically for Cape Town – ideas for further research that will allow us to define what solutions will be effective in providing sufficient accessibility to opportunities for all and at all times," says Zuidgeest.

Abandoning pricing based on distance

One study of theirs, led by UCT postgraduate researcher Aivinhenyo Imuentinyan, is modelling the levels of accessibility provided by Cape Town's public transport system. In particular, he is looking at aspects of affordability. Most measures of transport accessibility ignore affordability, a considerable oversight in developing cities, say the researchers, where this has a huge impact on those who earn a low income. In an unequal city like Cape Town, such research has relevance to planning policies that aim to reduce transport-related social exclusion and promote equity.

Imuentinyan's research aims to interrogate the current distance-based pricing model of public transport in Cape Town and investigate other possible, more equitable pricing options. Imuentinyan poses that a distance-based pricing system in the context of Cape Town has social and equity implications for the majority of poor people – especially those who live on the periphery of the city, not as a matter of choice, but as a legacy of apartheid.

The outcome is not clear at this stage of the research, but it seems logical that distance-based pricing will affect those who travel farther to get to opportunities. The research is due to be published as a book chapter in the near future.

How do we transform Cape Town's transport system?

Despite legislation and policy calling for public transport to be given a higher priority in planning and infrastructure and for non-motorised transport to be promoted as the preferred mode, over suitable distances, implementation has been slow. Zuidgeest and his colleagues contend that one of the main reasons is that many of the guidelines used by planners and designers are outdated and don't take current policy into account.

For a just and inclusive transport system in Cape Town, Zuidgeest has some additional suggestions, many of which are now being considered by the City and the Department of Transport:

  • Reform and renew public transport This includes initiatives such as the renewal strategy of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) for its train fleets and stations.
  • Move towards a hybrid system Zuidgeest emphasises that we need to recognise the crucial role of minibus taxis in providing mobility and accessibility. Hybrid systems do a better job of integrating these informal services with more formal public transport. Subsidies for mini-bus taxis is an option being debated by the Department of Transport.
  • Introduce user-based subsidies The City of Cape Town is considering fare discounts for particular users or destinations in their Comprehensive Integrated Transport Plan.
  • Pursue transit-orientated development When conducting development planning, we need to look at locating economic opportunities, activities and services closer to interchanges for public transport. Reforming land use is also important. The City is already embarking on densification, which will help.
  • Develop a strategy for non-motorised transport Cape Town should invest in better infrastructure for walking and cycling. People from low socio-economic backgrounds are often forced to use non-motorised transport and these should be explicitly integrated into the planning process.

The transport system in Cape Town as it stands is far from the ideal of providing equal accessibility to all, and due to our country's long history of discriminatory spatial planning, it won't be easily remedied. But there is also the opportunity to improve the system in a way that addresses social equity and justice. This is what Zuidgeest and his students are working towards.

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