I’m among those kids who used public transport to get to school for most of my education and training years. Through some work with a colleague we described the scholar mobility context for the North West Province. Our main findings in this report was that given the complexity of rural mobility — a simple stand-alone bicycle initiative is not enough to advance access and mobility to education. For instance, a learner in an average rural home (and many urban homes actually) grapples with morning chores involving sourcing water and domestic work before leaving home. Then it is the actual trip to school, which is a navigation through a jungle gym of movement without priority, infrastructure or safety nets. On arrival, there is a general expectation that the learners would function normally — after walking extensively to either the subsidised buses or directly to the school itself. Our main recommendation was that when thinking about a mobility intervention issues such as implementing the Shova Kalula bicycle scheme a complete action with maintenance and bike-care training and monitoring facilities is necessary. Of course this needs to supplemented by unique routing and access planning for scholars by local municipalities and interest groups.
Later on, I looked at how government investment in education translates to access and mobility between all nine provinces in South Africa. The investigation shows that transport costs have a bearing on total expenditure in education. In some of the provinces transport costs are close to school uniform costs. In five of the nine provinces transport costs more than other related expenses. The finding is rather unexpected and worsened when considering that even if school fees are subsidised the fact of the matter is that transport costs are incurred by respective households in rural and urban areas alike.
What is crucial however is the allocation of government investment to the education sector. I personally thought that the study would only show a ranking of each province. The estimations revealed that not only do provinces require unique interventions and investment schemes, an assessment of the existing investment base and how it’s distributed is necessary. For instance, I used a blanket figure for investment which does not discern teachers salaries, infrastructure etc. from transport investments. A more robust study is necessary on that level. What can be learnt though is that without an understanding of the base investment and its impact — injecting more may be directed toward perpetuating inefficiencies and distortions. In this sense the government investment in primary and secondary education could be contributing to hidden market failure hard to detect as they drown in the status quo.
Learner mobility in the South African context is a crucial point of departure for redressing access inequities. If a city, or town is designed such that a 3rd grader could navigate with ease, comprehension, confidence and comfort then I’d say we’re talking about a real measure of accessibility. Public transport systems and services should really be universally accessible — where resources are unlimited. But reality, a city or town for children is an attractively playful and accessible environment — which official would allow their child to swim in smog every morning to school? Which parent would tolerate the long walking distances children endure to school, when replacing school shoes, for instance, does not come cheap? What about paying attention after taking care of a home and then enduring a demanding (and sometimes dangerous) trip to school? The long term and perpetual injustice is practically illegal in view of our Constitutional position on access to education, the CSIR Guidelines on Access and the Guidelines to Accessing Government Facilities in SA. More pressure in the mobility and access investment within the education sectors is necessary. This offers long term benefits — a generation addicted to using sustainable transport alternatives, not one aspiring to buy their way out of public transport on their first pay. In my view, that is a good place to plant long term low carbon mobility seeds in the developing world. These children will also go home and be advocates of sustainable mobility if the culture and practice surrounds them right into their adult lives. Think Marshmallow Test.