#31~ Transport Resilience and Burning Bridges

Photo of the multifaceted transport interchange eThekwini.

An article from the South China Morning Post highlights deep tensions between resilience and broader economic ideology in times of crises. Public transportation officials can only do so much after a typhoon decimated the infrastructure.

“They originally told us to wait for their shuttle bus. I waited for a long time, and then they said there won’t be anything … What should I do? I work in Whampoa and my boss is chasing me,” she said.

What is resilience truly? Is it the responsiveness or the manner in which commuters, operators and communities rebuild? Or is it how quickly everything can go back to normal? From a psychological level, being able to dust oneself off and make due with what is left may seem reasonable. However, the question is when: immediately after a terrible storm or perhaps a few days later when much of the systems are pulled together into an efficient manner. Should regulators even care whether there is chaos or not: perhaps this builds a national character, a sense of unity in the tragedy. Such that everyone gets to engage with the reality and work through it as it is improved.

“In a capitalist society, the government has no power to meddle with all the contracts between employers and employees,” he said.

Photo from Sam Tsang– It doesn’t matter what you’ve built, and how wonderful it works now. At some point it will tear to pieces and putting it together may take more courage than convincing everyone to buy in all over again.

This photo shows that regardless of how excellent the transport system is: it needs to be ready to take the punches of nature. Does this type of external effect make regulators, operators and society appreciate the infrastructure and services more? Could this be a source of resilience? Another question.

Burning public transport bridges

There’s a long standing tension between public transport services, operators and society. In South Africa, the tensions consistently escalate into violence– a voiceless sentiment, loud and clear. The pattern has been to express dissatisfaction through tormenting transport infrastructure and systems. But this is not simply tension between dissatisfied commuters and transport vehicles torched. It’s also murderous voices within and between operators. Who or what actually stands out to mediate the tensions impartially? I’d expect labour unions to stand between operators and user tensions because they need to protect employees and safeguard employer assets too. If employer assets are disrupted, then operators will be vulnerable to cost containment in some form or another. Which fundamentally fosters greater frustration. Then again, what does this mean? Consider the most recent news of terror related to commuters being angry about poor quality service. It’s not the first time this frustration lends itself into destroying assets that tax revenue will have to repair through potentially messy contracts and deals. Yet, the two voices in the story say some unusual things:

“Yes, we have [suspended rail services in the province] due to the series of incidents where our drivers have been intimidated, assaulted and trains hijacked. The Friday incident was out of hand and we had to put our foot down and took a firm decision as leadership to protect our staff and also the commuters that are innocent,” said Zama Nomnganga

So here I am expecting something else from the unions, but they end up saying:

“UNTU have reached a point where the Union have to admit that the situation on our commuter trains has reached such a state that government and Prasa is blatantly ignoring one of our fundamental Constitutional rights, the right to life, set out in our Bill of Rights, when you enter the premises of PRASA’s stations across the country,”

“UNTU is trying to establish the extent of the havoc, but our members have been intimidated by Prasa managers not to give details to the union. If these horrific working conditions are not enough, they now must fear victimisation from their incompetent employer,”general secretary of UNTU Steve Harris said.

Neither positions articulated the potential impact of the Passenger Rail Agency South Africa’s strategic position, investment and restructuring in the face of all the turmoil. I’ve not heard officials nor journalists trying to connect the possibility that the long term development of rail transport services yes, suffered from neglect, looting and other malpractices. But also it’s a product of a planning regime that very few people in society like to recall.

Symbolically it could be reasonable to argue that destroying commuter rail in its current form is synonymous with removing oppressive statues. How many spirits have lurked in these trains? How many lives have the tracks trapped? The sirens of impatience chime louder than the dark tide of load shedding that struck South Africa due to a lack of long term planning. Something similar occurred with the Cape Town water crises: there’s probably a big challenge when it comes to planning ahead. Building the forts before the battles even seem eminent. This is resilience: readiness for the chaos that could strike on any day. At the same time how does a regulator serve the short term needs of society while enabling the manifestation of longer term goals? The frustration is real, but it can be calmed too.

What if the wait is unbearable?

“I applied and got a letter four months later saying that they can’t accommodate me because [they] were full and [they had] put me on the waiting list. Till today I am still on that waiting list.

“I have given up on calling and checking on what is going on because it is the same story all the time. I need their help because I stay alone and have to spend my pension money paying people to transport me. That is money that I could have spent on food,” —Joshua Matsidiso, 66 years old.

The perpetual burden of slow policy change and responsiveness can not be tolerated by society. While my lectures talk about policy tensions between societal realities and paces in policy making: there’s a substantial gap worth elaborating on. Take for example the quote above where a protest related to transport for people with disabilities reflects difficult contact points. On one hand, there’s a service for people with disabilities but it’s network is incomplete, and it’s offering is limited compared to what users expect. However, it is quite plausible that the municipal budget only reflects the allocation, not the performance. This is the fundamental problem here: broken people technologies lead to a fractured society. While the operation exists, it needs surgical examination to inform and weave the contact points between policy goals and outcomes.

In my view reactions toward protesting and or demonstrations are each useful but they only reflect a voicelessness. This voiceless energy is intoxicating and perpetuated the apathy of municipal officials ignoring local level needs. It lacks genuine care: potentially between all parties. The world of being is unbearable, but policies may need to be more durable, caring and responsive in order to be useful. It could also be that policies need to be a vehicle for capturing and embodying articulations in order to animate society in a certain direction one step at a time.

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