The introduction of new public transport services and hard infrastructure is not enough to entice commuters from their cars, onto rail and bus systems, says SSI Engineers & Environmental Consultants land use and public transport planner Erwin van Dijk.
“Municipalities continue to focus on the provision of a generic technical solution, instead of understanding and addressing a wide range of complementary and, in some cases, contradictory user needs,” he explains. “The introduction of a new system such as a bus rapid transit (BRT) system or a scheduled bus service will, without incorporating different user needs, not provide an acceptable transport option for all.”
Van Dijk and colleague Gerhard Hitge, Cape Town transport planning and policy development head, are proponents of what they refer to as an “incremental approach” to public transport improvements – an approach more likely to provide improved public transport to the majority of a city’s residents, they believe.
They argue, for example, that although the Gautrain and ReaVaya and MyCiTi BRT systems have improved the image and acceptance of public transport, these large-scale, one-project improvements come with challenges and risks, and are implemented at a cost that puts a large burden on developing cities.
“Despite the quality offered through the roll-out of large-scale projects, it is a slow process, which results in poor public transport service continuing in large parts of the cities not immediately benefiting from improvements,” says Hitge.
However, an incremental approach can reduce some of the risks inherent in major interventions. It can provide the opportunity to gradually implement supporting policies, while also allowing improvements in a wider area, benefiting a larger part of the population over a much shorter time period, he adds.
“This does not necessarily mean that widely available quality public transport is not realistic, it only needs a realistic step-by-step implementation that fits the available funding,” says Van Dijk.
“Upgrading does not only have to consist of the phased roll-out of a new public transport flavour such as the BRT, but could also include incremental upgrades of existing public transport corridors.”
In other words, public transport can be improved by many small steps instead of a few extensively planned and costly large jumps, Van Dijk summarises.
Public transport use can also be improved by elements such as land-use planning, transport planning, urban design, and communication and marketing, he adds.
If even one of these components is underdeveloped, the public transport system will be unable to meet the demands of travellers.
In other words, the existence of a bus service alone will not give a potential user enough reason to use it, says Hitge.
“Public transport can only be fully unlocked by combining all excellent elements into one public transport experience. Pockets of excellence are not enough.”
Public transport is likely to provide a better service, and thus a better opportunity for users, in cities that are well designed, for example, and have a diversity of land uses at appropriate densities.
However, in South Africa, the urban environment around public transport interchanges is mostly poor, which creates an experience that is unsatisfying to current users and prohibitive to potential new users.
“Changing the urban fabric in support of a public transport lifestyle is a long-term process and requires conviction and strong leadership to drive transformation,” says Hitge, “but it is a long way from being impossible.”
Communication and marketing are also essential to create a public-transport lifestyle, says Van Dijk. Marketing and information campaigns can increase awareness, change community perceptions and highlight advantages of a specific service.
“In fact, the lack of ‘image’ is one of the reasons public transport users aspire to own a private car,” suggests Van Dijk.
In South Africa, the public transport system is not marketed as a whole, and each operator does its own marketing to a greater or lesser extent. In many cases marketing is targeted at the existing users, with no campaigns to attract new users to the system. There is virtually no coordination, and none of the operators publish schedules in print form, notes Van Dijk.
However, amid all these ‘softer’ elements, the actual transport system also has to live up to expectations, he adds.
Improved public transport operations, with additional services, different alternatives and reliable schedules, can also increase the motivation to travel.
“Only BRT and the Metrorail business express trains provide travel times that are reasonably competitive with private cars during peak hours,” says Hitge. “Other operations are slow and experience the same traffic conditions as private cars. There is also no integrated ticketing system in place where one ticket can be used on several systems.”
So, is all lost? Can car owners be persuaded to shift to public transport?
Yes, say Van Dijk and Hitge. “It is not a lack of good practice, but rather the lack of integration, the lack of transferability of best practice, and the lack of coordination between land use and transport planning, that prevent the anticipated shift to public transport.”
* Hitge and Van Dijk will speak at the Southern African Transport Conference, to be held in Pretoria next week.