Taxi drivers skip robots because they need to be prioritized

While mobility as a service sounds like a rephrased version of the principles that motivated the emergence of minibus taxi services in South Africa — we need to re-educate users and drivers about the future of traffic behavior and information.

The footage above describes taxi driver motives for bad behavior along major roadways. Frustrating drivers and other users is not deliberate: they cary more frustration, destinations and people than car users. At the same time, they need better services and protect the commuters they carry.

Although frustrating minibus operators need to beat traffic

Carrying between 9 to 22 passengers each with a destination in mind — varying arrival times and other connecting trips: the pressure for a sensible transport business is high. Paratransit services compete with bus and rail services that are subsidized and attempt to price themselves competitively. This comes at a cost of operational maintenance and very tight margin. Therefore forcing an average driver to push their cab as hard as possible along very narrow headways. Taxi drivers outsmart the commuting traffic by timing traffic lights, forcing between vehicles and just pushing the vehicle between spaces with guts and rigor. At the same time they try to reach commuters where ever they hail — making the drive a zig-zag between pick up and drop off points. This is not in any traffic flow theory textbook which advocate for straight streams of ordinary pauses and acceleration rippling to drivers behind the passenger pursuit. It’s pretty arrogant to think normal strategies would work. All this happens with commuters sometimes laughing at the dynamics of the passengers or gripping seats like it’s their last trip on a taxi forever. There’s a lot of anxiety that is carried by the average commuter and this is translated into their workplaces and households. Women in particular are exposed to significant risk of harassment and normalized gawking; while men suffer from cross-pollinated toxic behavior that continues when at home or spills into their operators. Taxi Associations serve as the coordinating structures to ensure the safety of all commuters and users of the space — but are also subject to a complex of bias, pressure and politics only insiders would truly grasp. Yet many of us grew up using this mode and are working our way out of it toward the shelter, comfort and safety of a car — which we control, dictate and manage freely.

Dedicated busways give paratransit operations the priority commuters deserve

Some commuters will fight their way out of the minibus taxi service. Others will remain in captivity or willingly continue using the service. The extent to which there is pressure for commuters to leave the service depends on the extent to which the mode inspires a sense of mobility security. Specifically the sense of safety, comfort, control and reasonable freedom are key attributes for sustainable minibus taxi operations. This quality is impossible to achieve if services are not priced accordingly. The first step to providing a decent level of connectedness and dignity is to give the 9–22 seater vehicles the roadway space it deserves — because people come first: not cars. Most cars in cities and towns have one or two people in them. Carpooling might only be interesting for some commuters now that the fuel and Value Added Tax rates are higher — but generally it’s not an option. Taxi operators already dominate the roadway, they know when traffic lights will turn green or red three seconds before and skip the line. This is commensurate to the compound value of time they bear and the welfare gains their services reflect (full paper on this topic is available, reach out). The challenge is that this happens without the appropriate coordination and priority treatment. I find it offensive that a new mode structure would receive such treatment while the existing operators were not provided with enough room to maneuver. Bree Street in Johannesburg and Durban CBD are prime examples of situations where peak hour taxis just take over the entire roadway — raising a lot of questions about the type pd mode necessary for corridors like that. I will simply question the nature of Integrated Transport Planning in the cities (what on earth have they planned other than BRT?) — and say no more than that for now. There’s a lot of evidence on the benefits of green lighting and dedicated busways — an improvement in right of way category can actually activate the same level of welfare as congestion charging would along the same corridor. So why haven’t we implemented this? More fear to negotiate, plan and talk revenue with minibus taxi owners and association, they are in business after all.

New K53 and traffic driving behavioral rules are crucial for the effective implementation of dedicated busways

The other week Takatso Moloi from Moving Gauteng shared a clip from the Reya Vaya BRT service in Johannesburg (a lot of people from outside the country pretend to know a lot about it lately). In the clip the coordinator is talking about the increases in accidents involving the bus service. Noting that most drivers were absorbed from the minibus taxi industry — they are good drivers. A general expectation is that BRT reduces the number of potential conflict points along a corridor and this should cut down accidents. In reality however, if humans interact with this new network of lanes, communication and information without learning appropriate behavior — the conflict points are explosive. Just last year I was turning into Park Station, a lady was crossing the dedicated BRT lane with a friend while traffic was queuing behind me. As they were midway in the lane, she is hit by a minibus taxi which expected them to jump out of the way — and they were expecting something bigger, louder and more blatant: a blue, red and white branded BRT bus. The taxi hit the one lady’s hip and she fell, twisted and confused while the minibus driver jumped out and helped her into the taxi, car drivers just watched barely in shock.

What exactly needs to happen? Well, firstly the economic and operational efficiencies from BRT systems are great. However, the manner in which pedestrians and drivers are expected to automatically adapt to new information along roadways is quite ridiculous. Jarret Walker takes some extraordinary footage of transport systems all over the world. In one clip from the City of Cape Town he captures something I’ve seen often: pedestrians just jumping between the fine lines — not because their desire lines are wrecked but because it makes perfect sense based on existing traffic pattern dispositions.

A MyCiti Bus Service Station stalked by a young woman carrying bags of what seem to be groceries. There is no way of entry unless she goes around and what if there’s another bus coming? (Footage from Jarret Stewart)

A lot needs to happen, the first step is not to mimic everyone else. There are a number of by-laws that the transport planning teams in these cities should have developed to facilitate, protect and educate non-motorized transport users, drivers and commuters about the appropriate behavior for surviving an updated urban jungle. This should not be taken lightly — which is the case when asking about it (I asked on this subject on a radio programme and was left dumbfounded without a suitable answer). Even so, the narrative behind BRT has just recently taken on the subject of road safety — but this assumes pedestrian safety and not system wide safety provisions to modify dispositions.

The footage above was extracted from Jarret Stewart’s YouTube Channel.

The K53 manual is significantly out of touch with the subtle nuances and driver protocols in South Africa. It’s an excellent conceptual framework for operating in an ordinary traffic stream, but it has no applied account for the dynamics of urban traffic flow. Practically lacking in enabling drivers to adapt to key shifts in traffic flow systems in South Africa especially in the advent of technology. Some examples of key seismic shifts include:

  • New busways for public transport and High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. These are already mentioned in the signage side of the K53 manual, but not in the systems sense (i.e. circumstances within which HOV driving is important and the potential impacts).
  • Minibus taxi, tuktuk and other forms of transport zig-zagging in the traffic stream (i.e. bicycle delivery). Such operations cause shocks in the traffic flow stream and require a deeper understanding of how to interact with such behavior along complex situations.
  • It’s not an intuitive thing for some road users, but most importantly users are not aware how to resuscitate the traffic flow after such shocks. This leads me to driving in congested environments, rat running and how to keep traffic flowing in a safe manner while reducing the impact of delays upstream (behind you).
  • Finally as pedestrian oriented design is becoming a key element in travel planning and design lately, the K53 manual and other roadway related policies, guidelines and manuals may reflect this — but it’s not up to date. Especially when pedestrian priority, green-lighting for cyclists and other modes becomes more prominent.

A proactive approach to potential developments and cognitive gaps in user behavior along key changes in infrastructure and traffic systems information is of paramount importance. Humans are only capable of adapting within the existing vocabulary — now imagine how the response would be to entirely new linguistic components attributed to a new language and logic in travel behavior.

Hlulani, 18

I’ll be posting a more technical note on this subject on highlighting a new app in South Africa that could change the dynamics in traffic flow streams. Keep an eye out.

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