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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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?”

PIC­TURES: BONGIWE MCHUNU

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.

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