262 | Taxi ranks are worth more than they look

How many taxi ranks are active in the country? We know the number of ports, airports, borders and other “important” points of entry, but little to nothing about points of transition. 

Transport interchanges are a vital part of passenger transport services. Especially from a network optimisation perspective. They serve to pull people from all directions and enable them to board on a new journey, or continue the journey they were on toward their final destination. 

However, without sufficient insight, and detail related to their operation, location and tactical role with a network the commuter experience can be worse than ineffective: dreadful. 

Network effects

When poorly designed, various operators could be serving routes within their operating licences, but some commuters are cutting through the route or area licencing demarcations. They face an additional fee along a journey that could have been avoided if the route was flexible, or if a new route was introduced in its entirety. 

It is a complex administrative and territorial debate, I’m sure, but the missing gaps between desire lines and route offerings is something that municipalities are expected to unearth. 

Taxi ranks or transport interchanges in general, are quite interesting opportunities for development and change. 

Wise media companies have truly leaned into the million eyeballs glancing past billboards; shopping centres may not want to admit that minibus taxis sometimes anchor their retail margins; and the extent to which taxi ranks are cared for defines both the edges of dignity and perceived market value. 

Yes, I said it. The actual real estate value of these transport nodes is usually such an attractive spot for commercial activity that their historical presence drew the lines of development. The development of the old township nodes, edges of the city centre—most of which are by design and location “points of entry” into a landscape of settlements or activities (commercial, recreational etc.). 

Commuter aspirations, valuable time and property 

Interestingly, how these locations have developed over the years has received mixed layers of support and neglect say a lot about the perceived value of these nodes. It in many instances reflects this latent ambition that minibus taxi users will one day stop using minibus taxis and drive; in other instances it echoes the voices of street-vendors, popular retail outlets and buzzing activity along their presence. 

Typically, these facilities are sources of revenue for passenger transport companies. Yet, given the politically suppressed structure of taxi associations, liberating themselves toward a more commercial orientation could unleash an old conversation: who really owns the taxi rank? 

The extent to which real estate can capture value has been explored on so many occasions as part of the spatial transformation initiative in SA. Yet, the transformation also involves questions around ownership, leasing and revenue creation from minibus taxi related infrastructure. 

Look around a minibus taxi rank, if it wasn’t for the association operating there, only car users would make it to the retail outlet; then again, if it wasn’t for the outlet the association would not have a viable route. 

It is this reciprocal relationship that goes undervalued, mispriced, if ever monetised. What if an association had a holdings company and co-financed building a shopping centre near the rank? Or if they procured a popular franchise? Or if they delved into the petrol station markets? Or if they bought land and relocated their taxi rank to that land? 

Well, there may be a few associations and municipalities which have already taken these routes in the hope to diversify their revenue bases—and focus on business. 

They are doing this alone, with the expertise and skills acquired by members who have legacy ambitions for their transport businesses. 

Passenger transport companies diversify their income over politics

It is well known that many transport companies in passenger rail use their real estate income to support their passenger operations. 

Meanwhile, in the balance sheet the well managed asset base drives better conversations with financiers, investors and potential partners. This is by simply having access to the real estate and the capacity to manage and run it. 

Well, what if municipalities did this on their behalf? It opens up another wound in the Department of Transport’s policy ambitions: building municipal capacity. There’s not enough skills to do this at municipal level, not enough people to drive this process forward. I’m not talking about Gauteng, or Durban or Cape Town, I’m talking about South Africa in general.

When Meshack Khosa and the late Colleen McCaul document the minibus taxi industry as a wealth engine (accumulation of capital, and increasing diverse asset base, respectively), in the 90’s one would expect more commercial focus. 

When in 2003 David Dewar and Fabio Todeschini pleaded with transport planners to “rethink transport after modernism”, it was as if it all fell to deaf ears. 

When Wessel Pienaar showed us how to measure the value of minibus taxi facilities, it’s as if this slipped by the wayside. 

While the tools and practices have been at our disposal, what we did wrong was to let the political market supersede the commercial business of passenger transport operations. 

This includes real estate, routes and network analysis at scale, not a conversation that winds down to a relief fund to create an appetite for being included in a subsidy scheme. No. I could easily refuse to let that be the case. 

But I must also understand why it is the case. Perhaps our political environment has reached a stage where commerce is sometimes reserved as an afterthought, little is possible if the politique isn’t right. 

In a different breath, this is generally understandable for an industry which was side-lined for decades on end to demand better recognition. One could argue that some form of reparations to signal the state’s seriousness are due. 

Whereas, building legacy businesses does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with subsidisation, it has to do with financial freedom, commercial access and skills to expand and invest competently and diversely. Such ideas have been floating in the air for years. 

If we knew how many taxi ranks there were in this country, and knew their value, our conversation would not sway with the same old whispers in the wind.

Thank you for reading.