Bus Johannesburg South Africa

Johannesburg Fights Taxi Driver Opposition to BRT Project Necessary for 2010 World Cup

Johannesburg BRT Project Map» Arguments over government’s involvement in transportation put into question the role of transit in cities dependent on taxis and private buses.

South Africa will host the continent’s first World Cup in 2010, and in preparation for the event, the city of Johannesburg has been rebuilding its transportation system with a focus on a new bus rapid transit network. But threats and shootings by members of the city’s strong taxi drivers union suggests that the project’s full implementation will not come easily. In a city that desperately needs alternatives to its traffic congestion, this kind of opposition is counter-productive.

Johannesburg, the country’s largest city with a population of almost four million, already offers commuter rail service in the form of Metrorail, which carries two million passengers daily. The Gautrain project, currently under construction, will eventually connect downtown Johannesburg with the capital in Pretoria and the international airport. But it will provide fast intercity connections and it will not be open until after the World Cup concludes.

The BRT project, called Rea Vaya, fulfills a different role: more local service to dense areas of the metropolis. Its first phase began operations last month, and when World Cup rolls around next summer, it will offer 86 km of lines and 100 stations. By 2013, as represented in the map above, the system will be expanded to 122 km and 150 stations. Unlike most “BRT” lines, Johannesburg will be getting the real thing in Rea Vaya: bus-only rights-of-way, high-level platforms at stations allowing level boarding onto buses, and pre-boarding fare collection within stations. In other words, it will be efficient and rapid and give the areas along its route an alternative to existing modes of transport, which take too long too frequently.

But taxi drivers in the area see the BRT as major competition, and they’ve been making their opinion known throughout the system’s development period. Several bus drivers have been threatened by taxi owners, and this week a guard for one of the system’s planners was shot in what appears to be direct action by a rogue gang of something equivalent to a taxi mafia. The United Taxi Association Forum, the union of drivers, denies association with any of the violence but it is clear that individual members are threatened by the creation of the BRT system.

While the violence in South Africa may be beyond the international norm, the reaction of taxi drivers to the implementation of a competing government-run transit network is relatively standard. Plans in Lagos for a light rail system, similarly, have been received negatively by drivers of the yellow buses that take most people everywhere.

To some extent, this opposition is reasonable: the BRT system will eliminate the means to make a living for thousands of taxi drivers in Johannesburg. In a country where unemployment is rampant, creating “efficiency” through better transit ultimately means cutting a number of people out of the job market, at least in the short term. Compensation probably should be made to the city’s taxi drivers, just to ensure that they’re able to transition to new careers.

Yet the lack of better urban mobility for the people of Johannesburg is a limitation for the city as a whole, keeping millions of people in traffic when they could be doing more productive things with their lives. Opposing the system ultimately means denying the population of an alternative to most inner-city commutes; using violence to threaten the network’s completion is a disgrace.

Image above: Johannesburg BRT system full build-out, from Rea Vaya