Wheels come off Joburg’s new BRT
Bad planning has been cited as the chief reason for failure of the new system, writes THABISO THAKALI
AT FIRST glance, the Rea Vaya bus parked at the terminal in Ghandi Square this week looked like the perfect advert for a working public transport in Joburg’s busy city centre.
Surrounded by metro buses, the bright red and blue bus stood out as the hallmark of the supposedly more efficient, cheaper and safer public transport that was to be at the vanguard of the city’s preparations for the World Cup – and a lasting legacy for the people of Joburg after the final whistle is blown next July.
But just below the surface of this picture-postcard perfection was the less grand detail that the bus standing idle.
It’s something the City of Joburg owned up to the hard way this week when it decided to suspend the operation of its distributor service barely two months after introducing it to great fanfare.
A closer inspection by Weekend Argus’s sister paper the Saturday Star, the day before the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system’s circular or loop service was abruptly halted, revealed the service had been doomed right from the beginning.
Apart from extremely low passenger levels, its schedules were in disarray, buses running behind time and ticket vendors virtually non-existent.
The one bus standing inactive in the middle of Joburg’s biggest bus terminal had in fact been converted into an “office” for the dispatch staff – a sorry state of affairs that even passengers looking for information on the service could hardly believe.
It took the Saturday Star team nearly 45 minutes to travel on the north-bound bus from the terminal along Troye Street, via Noord Street to Braamfontein, despite the bus’s stopping only twice along the way.
This was after more than 20 minutes spent at the terminal struggling to find a ticket vendor and being told by the Metrobus ticket office that Rea Vaya tickets would only be sold at the Market Street station.
Bus driver Goodman Mabasa was on his tenth dry run of the day, with no more than three people on the 80-seater bus.
He appeared understandably annoyed as he whizzed the bus past Joubert Park station with no one jumping in.
“The highest number of people I have ever carried since the beginning of the route is eight,” Mabasa said.
“I don’t know whether people don’t want to use the buses because of fear or simply because they don’t know about their existence.”
Another driver who had just finished his shift said BRT staff called the city’s distributor service route “the playground” because of the buses that ran empty for most of the day.
“This is not a good sign,” he said. “People often assume that BRT is working fine because you cannot see the problems so easily. We don’t just call it a playground for nothing – it is because we simply come here every day to make the trips by ourselves as drivers. You would be lucky if you could carry at least six passengers in one trip.”
Two weeks ago, the Saturday Star reported how the CBD service had been running empty at great cost to the council.
At its peak hour trip, a circular route bus provided transport to no more than 12 passengers in the arteries known as C3 and C4 which link Newtown, Braamfontein and Hillbrow.
“It’s a great shame in this day when there is expectation of a renaissance of public transport that we cannot keep such an important link,” said one dispatch officer with extensive experience in the bus service, seated in his “office” – behind the driver’s seat. “It is tragic that it is going to stop but what else would can we do if there are no passengers?”
‘People assume BRT is working fine… but drivers simply come here every day to make the trips by themselves’
Questions were raised this week about the planning, design and marketing of the circular route which some believe led to the BRT’s failure to attract the number of passengers initially envisaged.
Projections assumed the city’s distributor service would carry no fewer than 5 000 passengers a day but it was revealed this week that the service was only carrying 200 passengers a day.
Officials from the city cited lack of signs, poor sales of tickets, insufficient enforcement of traffic rules and low interest from commuters as reasons for the route’s closure.
Independent transport consultant Paul Browning said the starter service in the city centre had failed to do what it was intended to do.
“It does seem that this was really badly planned from the city’s point of view,” he said.
“It was poor from the outset and indeed it has been a great embarrassment in the way it was poorly promoted. It was probably prematurely introduced.”
The C3 and C4 routes, which began operating on September 21, will remain closed until early next year, leaving only the 25km trunk route from Thokosa Park in Soweto to Ellis Park in service.
A notice of withdrawal of the service issued to passengers indicated that the city was unable to subsidise “these non-viable services at the unacceptable levels required to continue operations”.
The pamphlet said the service would be redesigned to link the trunk with the high-density areas of business and that a traffic control plan would be drawn up and managed with assistance of the metro police.
But of equal concern to the “few” passengers using the service is the return to taxis in the interim period.
“Next year will be too late,” fumed Pella Maseko, a regular user of the BRT from Thokosa to the city centre and the now defunct circular service.
“It is not our fault that someone failed to do his or her job properly to make sure this service was well accepted so why must we suffer?”
Another regular passenger, Nomthandazo Nhlapo of Rockville Soweto who works in Braamfontein was equally critical of city officials for the failure of the CBD service.
“If they knew it was so bad, why did they start this service in the first place?” she asked.
“Clearly someone failed to do the most basic thing before the launch of this bus service which is impact assessment. How could they suddenly just awake to this reality after investing so much in it?”
GOING NOWHERE: A Rea Vaya bus at Ghandi Square is proving more useful as an office than its intended purpose, with passengers thin on the ground.
LONE RANGER: Driver Goodman Mabasa transports sole passenger Tracy Gulu on the route from Ghandi Square to Braamfontein.