#167 Transport markets are failing under our feet

DO TRUCKS STOP? Pause a bit okay, there’s always that road or open plot which hosts 20 tires, exhausted and fumed; no more than 56 tons; and a hell of a big machine. Horses everywhere, while policies should run as parallel to the vanishing point as possible the issues point to something else. Here we’ll find a tree of crises, branching out, thorny and fruitless. Oh, but not everything is an emergency.

Reflecting on the past week’s developments is a tear-jerking experience because there is very little to do other than write, propose, contribute and hope to be heard. Besides that, it has come to my attention that focusing on actionable tasks is much more valuable than simple old “commentary”. In the policy sphere, it is only one source of policy input, which depends on political proximity prior to realising any degree of legitimacy. This is what makes organisations such as Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), Justice Project South Africa (JPSA), GroundUp, Solidarity/Comair and “All Truck Drivers Federation/Association/Alliance” such powerful forces. These entities have evolved gradually or dramatically from formal or informal commentary on policy issues to action— just to nurture their legitimacy and now use the byproduct (i.e. influence) to navigate through the transport policy sphere. All these pressure groups represents policy markets that are failing— which are big opportunities for public and private sector to intervene. They challenge the status quo for better or for worse. But they must be questioned more robustly now than before. 

By the time new transport policy proposals hit the ground running, their soles wouldn’t be intellectually satisfying but unfit for the public track.

Will this be true?

Making users paying seem illegitimate 

For instance, while OUTA stands out against the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project’s (GFIP) plan to charge users for the highway expansions. Is the lack of congestion pricing— or user pay charges to fund the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project worth the delayed the climate and congestion savings? The policy proposals the organisation makes are limited to Fuel Levy financing, scrapping the technology, and reducing the collection and administrative costs  by cutting the toll collection company to size. However, their source of contention was not the action itself, but the process followed to erect the gantries and implement the policy (this is something for another day, it is such a complex debate). In anycase, who will pay for future mobility and access projects built for the public, by the public through a user-pay framework?

Challenging road safety interventions by their constitutionality

In another case, the JPSA’s arguments against the Adjudicative Administration of Road Traffic Offences Act (AARTO) worth the delay in the road safety benefits if its constitutionality; demerit model; and enforcement-and-compliance tensions truly worth the debate? By loosening the weight of the value which this Act adds to the public safety domain through discrediting it before roll-out (i.e. traffic officers won’t implement; local governments are incentivised to issue fines etc.), are the lives on the line worth the debate before regulation? This in a country where both the public roadway users and law enforcement have been consistently breaching our mutual contracts of trust, discrediting an intervention as it rolls out seems to be familiar. 

Stimulating debate while voices breathe fire into trains

The complexity of standing up for the voiceless passenger rail transport commuter and the growing popularisation of railway anarchy is a tough line to draw. On one hand organisations need to speak for commuters, protect their rights and provide a legitimate space to be heard. Yet, the political economy underlying the passenger rail industry could be the basis and motivation underlying some of the torched commuter trains. However, in many cases, some commuters express their frustrations through vandalism and anarchy— causing more delays and increasing the total cost of service in general (i.e. less reliability, slower trains, because of fewer train-sets). While new trains are being manufactured here in SA, for the first time, brand new imported ones are also joining the grid— should PRASA be questioned only for the worst end of the stick or encouraged to navigate through difficult times and introduce their new service lines? 

Taking market failures to the skies

Taking it even as far as the aviation industry where at some point Comair came out to argue that South African Airways (SAA), was distorting the market and has survived on a government backed lifeline. Every other year, SAA makes headlines as the State Owned Entity enters into a more complex and competitive aviation industry without enough funds to pull through the year, and pay back its loans. Flatlining in nominal terms in revenue, dropping in real terms, the airline has been pointed to the business rescue door by Solidarity (a trade-union) at in recent years. The big debate has largely been about privatising it or not; whereas the true argument  leans more toward whether or not government intervention on the airline is justified or not. Furthermore, new investors and a more corporatised entity (i.e. little political interference) could be the way out— meanwhile could rationalising the airline result in more space for new 100% South African airlines to emerge?

Markets failing by the ton-km as drivers burn to death 

Is the all trucks-alight “culture” worth the burning tyre? With some family breadwinners loosing their lives; task teams having sittings without producing tangibly public recommendations through a transparent methodology; and the need to secure labour and economic productivity hanging in the balance— should heads roll? The Road Freight Association reports on total damages in terms of assets, and consignments as a potential cost to our economy— however my concern is the value of the lives lost in this type of terror (one journalist used this exact argument in an interview with me, but actually did not even quote or cite me as the source, be careful commentators). Either way, could this have been avoided if there was an economic policy position on rail and road freight transport as it was prior to the Road Traffic Act of 1977? Maybe even one that enables dignified working conditions for all labourers; small and large businesses; and allocates the appropriate operational and land-use incentives through information systems and public private partnerships supplemented by appropriate law enforcement. 

Maybe the issues are pressing enough, and the prerequisites for recognition, to be heard, demand drastic measures as the policy making sphere lacks machinery to truly listen, communicate, build-consensus and share. I’ve been taken aback by the nature of interpretation, responsiveness, and the consequences of non-decision making  on and about transportation policy issues to an extent that there’s not enough time in a day to get through each one. However, it is becoming clearer that so much is slipping under the policy makers’ feet that taking one step forward in the legal layers, committee meetings, will probably be a year behind the intended audience. By the time new transport policy proposals hit the ground running, their soles wouldn’t be intellectually satisfying but unfit for the public track.

National Treasury’s Policy Proposal 

National Treasury published an economic policy proposal informing it’s institutional agenda—not the country’s; but their economic policy division’s policy priorities. In the proposal a few pages were dedicated to transport economic regulation as one of the network industries under discussion. If you read these questions you’ll notice something about the tone. These questions informed a brief comment submitted to the our Treasury, just to stimulate their discussion about the policy work they’re grappling with. Behind the scenes of these questions is both the above mentioned issues in the political economy and other issues which you’ll pick up in previous and future work (on and, or off the blog). For you, I’ll list the questions down, and perhaps consider them for reflection, discussion or comment. 

  1. How long will it take for ministries to let the public relations go and lean into the rigour of strategic interventions and policy prioritisation?
  2. Is there transport economic regulation without deeply reforming the private and public passenger transport ownership, labour, service, industry and systems markets?
  3. Is there transport economic regulation without intervening on the freight transport sector’s industrial, labour, and market practice regulation?
  4. Is there an economic policy without transport and logistics systems serving as feeders and distributors of talent, capital, and development? 

* Thank you. I excluded ride-hailing, meter taxi, bus and minibus taxi issues deliberately, maybe comment below to add.  Another thing, if you’re blogging on issues, make sure that when journalists ask you to comment you request that they either cite you or your blog for direct, or indirect comment/influence in their arguments. In South Africa, many writers practically plaigiarise, so be carefull and have your lawyers ready to take anyone on.

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