‘Huge investments and govt commitment needed to solve transport problems’

4th August 2006 By: Bert Swart

Government is committed by its National Land Transport Transition Act (NLTTA) to ensuring that South African commuters have access to a reliable, world-class public transport system, says Arup transport economic adviser, Andrew Marsay.

But realising this objective is going to require huge investments and a sustained, long-term commitment by the government.

He says that the envisaged quality and reliability of the Gautrain is an example of such com- mitment and this will have a significant role in persuading commuters to stick with public transport.

Despite its high cost, there is growing evidence that Gautrain is being implemented just at the time when such an investment is likely to add most to sustainable economic growth.

This is because recent land-use research is showing that there is now a definite trend towards densification in the whole of the Gauteng metropolitan area stretching from Pretoria North, the Pretoria CBD, through Midrand to the JIA/Ekurhuleni complex, Sandton and the recovering Johannesburg CBD.

Besides economic agglomeration taking place, where possible, many people are now choosing to living closer to the areas of their economic activity.

While these trends make the Gautrain more economically sensible, Marsay believes that for the project to succeed, a number of other interventions need to take place at the same time. This is because currently 50% of all commuting is done in private cars with 50% using public transport but the trend is still towards private cars. Moreover, 85% of all public transport is roadbased – 70% minibus taxis, 15% buses, with the balance using Metrorail commuter services.

One of the challenges in improving the transport system in South Africa, therefore, is how to balance the priorities of public-transport users and private-transport road users.

Marsay says that, while on one level, every- one realises that the road network needs to be expanded, on another level, the NLTTA requires that public transport be prioritised by government.

To give attention to this conundrum, Arup is now engaged in advising on a redefinition of priorities for the further development of Gauteng’s strategic road-network development in a way that takes proper account of the needs of both private- and public-transport road users.

When the present freeway programme was conceived, implementation was relatively effortless because of the powerful bureaucratic framework of the day.

In today’s transformed environment, a different consensus needs to be structured, one that still acknowledges that new freeways need to be built, but also raising the strategic profile of the important public transport road routes to the same level as that of the freeways.

As part of its current work, Arup has developed a new approach that will allow the prioritisation of new and expanded freeways but within a framework that gives equal priority to a strategic public-transport network.

The profile of public transport has to be raised to make commuter movement more user friendly.

It is just as important for the economy that lower-income people can get to their places of work efficiently and safely as it is for private-car users to be able to travel effectively and for freight to be moved without undue delays.

In Johannesburg, the first such dedicated public-transport route has started to be built.

It will run from Regina Mundi in Soweto, through Park Town, and eventually on to Rosebank, Sandton and Sunninghill.

A number of other routes will then follow.

The routes will have dedicated driving space for public-transport vehicles supported by specific signage to show that certain lanes are dedicated for certain modes of transport.

There will also be special electronic devices which, as buses approach the traffic lights, a signal will be sent to change the light and give priority to the buses.

The aim is that these routes should be progressively transformed into higher and higher capacity, dedi- cated to public-transport facilities of a technical standard to rival any-thing in the world.

But to achieve this is going to require much greater investment than is currently available to public transport.

Hence, the importance of the strategic highways review that will set public transport investment and freeway development on the same strategic plane.

Other prerequisites if Gautrain is to become part of a generally more effective public-transport system are that the existing commuter railway lines should be upgraded; that the interchange stations should be made efficient and attractive; and that the road networks providing access to the stations be improved.

Because rail transport is so expensive at the levels of traffic available in South Africa, the National Railplan, on which Arup is also working, has determined that there should be a concentration of investment on the busiest Metrorail lines.

One of the aims is to ensure that new development focuses on the corridors where commuter services are being made more effective.

Further, the province has de- veloped a transport-precincts initi-ative that aims to get all the author-ities and transport agencies to agree on the principles involved in making transport interchanges into effective, attractive elements of the urban environment, as opposed to locations one avoids at all costs.

To support this initiative, Arup invited its stations and interchanges unit in London to contribute its skills and experience in the precinct initiative, adding an inter- national dimension to the local blend of technical expertise and processes of change.

Because there are insufficient technical skills in the local transport industry to meet the enor- mous challenges facing a rapidly growing economy, the company has had to take steps to source competent people from abroad, says Marsay.

Partly to address this situation, a decision has been taken to integrate Arup South Africa with Arup International. In this way, two-way traffic in skills will be encouraged.

Besides facilitating access to key international skills, Arup will also be able to place its emerging local professionals in offices abroad where they can acquire the necessary skills to contribute to South Africa’s burgeoning transport-sector growth, Marrsay concludes.