Minibus taxis crucial in public transport overhaul

08 August 2018 | Story Herrie Schalekamp. Photo Media Club, Flickr. Read time 6 min.
South Africa’s minibus-taxi industry offers a flexible and affordable transport solution for millions of commuters across the country.
South Africa’s minibus-taxi industry offers a flexible and affordable transport solution for millions of commuters across the country.

There are signs of a fundamental shift in the South African government’s attitude towards the minibus-taxi sector and its role in urban transport. Since its origins in the 1920s in the form of independently owned sedan vehicles, the minibus-taxi sector has been both a reviled and welcomed part of society. Reviled because the sector has continued to defy the state’s attempts historically to suppress or more recently to replace it, yet tacitly welcomed since without it millions of people would be stranded.

In recent years, significant effort has gone into building advanced bus or bus rapid transit (BRT) systems such as Rea Vaya, MyCiTi, GoGeorge and A Re Yeng. Part of the aim of projects such as these has been to replace and absorb affected minibus-taxi businesses. These processes have been challenging and costly.

Long-standing adversarial relationships between the government and minibus-taxi owners and associations have complicated transitional and contracting negotiations. SA’s sprawling cities also have heavily tidal travel patterns — buses are full in one direction and mostly empty on the return trip. This increases the cost of providing public transport, as does the more technologically advanced nature of the new bus services compared to what they are replacing. Cities have lowered the cost to passengers by providing operating subsidies, but in so doing added pressure to already stressed rates bases.

After more than 10 years of concerted effort, the limited geographical extent of the new bus services, and the small number of cities in which they are in operation, point to the complexity and uncertainty of change in the public transport arena. There are no magic bullets.

Encouragingly, questions are being asked in national and city government quarters about what to do. The response that is emerging: work with the minibus-taxi industry, rather than try to eradicate it. Yes, this industry has failings that need to be addressed, but it has also been conveying large numbers of people for many decades with very limited support from the state. This is not to say that there has been no collaboration between government and the sector.

Taxi Recapitalisation Programme

Since 2006, the Department of Transport has been making an allowance available to minibus-taxi owners to scrap their old vehicles and to use it as a deposit towards the purchase of new, safety-compliant models. The target of this Taxi Recapitalisation Programme (TRP) was to replace 135,000 minibuses, the estimated national fleet size at the time.

Initially, the once-off allowance was R50,000, growing to R87,600 in the 2017-18 financial year. While the contribution makes up only about one-fifth of the price of a new vehicle, nearly 70 000 minibuses had been scrapped by the end of 2017. What this means in practice is that each passenger the new minibuses carry benefit from easier access, secure seat mountings, seat belts, emergency exits and anti-lock brakes.

The TRP was intended to end in 2013, but Parliament is still approving funding for it every year. This suggests it is not only vehicle owners who see value in the programme. Annual scrapping requests have dwindled though, as only minibuses older than the 2006 model year currently qualify for scrapping. A new replacement vehicle cannot again qualify for the allowance.

The goalposts have also shifted over time. Since the TRP’s inception, the national minibus-taxi fleet has continued to grow and is now estimated to comprise at least 200,000 vehicles.

Against this background the department has been reviewing the TRP. Issues receiving attention include the gap between the allowance and new-vehicle purchase price, removing the 2006 model year cut-off date, and introducing an overall vehicle age limit that will link into a revolving renewal cycle.

However, it is not only at the national level that government is working with the sector for improvement. More recently, city municipalities have also started to try new approaches to establish more constructive relationships with minibus-taxi role-players.

One example is eThekwini’s Moja Cruise project, whose pilot phase is being prepared. Under this programme, the municipality plans to pay monthly financial incentives to qualifying minibus-taxi owners and associations to improve their services. Some of these improvements include real-time monitoring of how the vehicle is being driven against pre-agreed targets, regular vehicle maintenance and roadworthiness checks, and putting in place more formal labour arrangements.

A tale of two cities

Another example of forward-thinking collaboration between local government and the minibus-taxi sector is evident in Johannesburg. The municipality appointed Wits University to develop a certificate programme in governance for minibus-taxi operators as part of the Rea Vaya BRT project. Through the Wits programme, operators are exploring the intricacies of public transport regulation, company governance and contract negotiations, among other things. At a broader level, the programme shows it is not only at the negotiation table where there is room to engage with the industry.

A third instance is the City of Cape Town’s ongoing work with a number of minibus-taxi associations to form public transport operating companies. The municipality intends to contract these companies to provide local-area services. The companies will use existing minibuses and staff, but will have to conform to minimum service standards and will operate under the MyCiTi brand. Similar to the Wits case, a number of the involved operators were also part of a training and development programme funded by the municipality and offered in partnership with UCT.

These are only some examples of a broader trend that suggests constructive relationships between the government and minibus-taxi sector actors are possible, and gaining momentum on the ground. This is not to say there is not a hard road ahead, whether in terms of negotiations or of changing ingrained adversarial attitudes. Progress in isolation is not the same as success in the long run, but for now the signs are encouraging.

Schalekamp is with the Centre for Transport Studies at UCT and part of a collaboration between UCT’s African Centre for Cities and the National Treasury’s Cities Support Programme.

This article first appeared on BusinessLive on 2 August, 2018.

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