#207 Transport policy inequalities revealed in response to COVID-19

Convenience, mobility and access

All transport modes have operators; networks and interchanges or terminals. Just as much as policy responsiveness in aviation is composed of airlines, a navigation requirement, and airports; public and non-motorised transportation require the same degree of attention to policy detail.


Convenience stores, once a hallmark place for getting goods and clothing in one spot. Then drive-through extended their life span in attracting more convenience hungry traffic. Between the local shopping complex and a proliferation of fast-food attachments to car use stood the supermarkets. These were giant destinations, a one stop shop for the nucleus family with 2 children or more. When developers and their anchor stores were caught in the mix of collusive behavior, the incentives were obvious. Getting the best location in a competitive retail environment meant proximity to parking, banking and restaurants— this was not cheap. The bulky buildings had significant efficiencies for how land could be used: commercially high density of revenue square meters.

When the supermarket became a Mall, a complete destination, a peak in consumer culture is not obscure for emerging African middle-classes. In this instance, the precinct includes play places, artificial grass, tiny lights wrapped around trees and fountains to furnish a sense of Feng shui. Against having walkable highstreets, cities and towns encouraged developers to build Malls as parking bays for all plausible destinations for residents in the region. Here, the convenience is over estimated because the land-use returns in property value and municipal income—if not the mixed land-use returns. In the advent of social distancing, the queues suffocate the justifications for behemoth shopping complexes located in car oriented corners of towns and cities— how will people get there? Where are the local shops that are somewhere between those “tucked in” the neighborhood and the shopping centres? It is in this instance where the masks are off and access to essential services is tested.

“Access, not movement, is the true aim of transport. One may have access to facilities without moving much at all. An immobile person may have water and gas at a flick of a switch, or have his refuse collected, receive calls from his doctors, and deliveries from the shops, be informed and entertained by wireless and television…In a well endowed town a person may have access to a vast range of facilities with very little travelling.”— Houseman’s ‘The Right of Mobility’.


Mobility is really the ability to and opportunities associated with moving through space and time, unhindered. It’s not always a matter of choice— not everyone have a car as an option to get around; nor do others consider cycling as an alternative to get around. But many people don’t have a choice, and therefore can not move around in the manner they prefer— even if there are other options available. Automobile use is a culture propelled by household dynamics, life changes, and spatial issues. It is reinforced by where places worth going to are. Public transportation is largely an option for those who have options, and a service for those who do not. Accessibility, so something else. It reveals a tense space between what we tend to think transportation is for. Accessibility generally refers to a combination of factors, but in essence reflects opportunities within one’s grasp. Places, people, services and ideas within reasonable distance, transportation or other access costs. In this sense, while we may not be mobile to attend a conference or be in the office, conferences and offices remain accessible at the cost of internet access, a compatible device and time-costs. Mobility simply refers to this ability to get there, while access refers to the extent to which things are “here”. This brings another sphere to the working life of Africans throughout the continent. Where much of getting around involves self-informed, or informal public transport, the status quo is jam-packed walkways, crowded buses and taxis all navigating between motorbikes, bicycles, animal drawn carts and side-walk sales. Beneath this state of constructive “chaos” is an orchestra, haggling at the last minute as Jack Mapanje would put it in his first train to Liverpool. All is within reach, as tuckshops mesh with the neighbourhood, street sales float with cooler boxes, snacks and fruits near transit windows– but public services are anchored to the sprawling nature of neighbours in SA. “Getting around”, as André Czeglé purports, only matters when there’s no other way to grasp what one seeks to reach.


What should matter in the policy discourse is not transport, but rather affordable and seamless access to goods and services. For some segments in society, transportation interventions would be necessary; while for others, ease of movement would probably make services more accessible. Whereas for others, services and goods being brought to them would be an ideal point of entry. However, the equitable and fair distribution of these types of trade-offs remains a blatantly under discussed topic in the rapidly evaporating policy discourse. Much of the mobility and access debates are confined to social media platforms, and email exchanges at this time. However, if policy makers are not careful, decisions which appear to undermine urban democracies will inculcate an enduring disappointment in how urgency was not used to leverage on the many unattended important issues.

“The antidote to this sickness is building communities where neighbours talk to each other about politics. In face-to-face meetings, men and women can learn from each other, reason with one another, and search for common interests. Face-to-face democracy moves politics away from its adversarial norm, where interest groups square off in conflict and lobbyists speak for their constituents. Instead, the bonds of friendship and community are forged as neighbours look for common solutions to their problems. Political participation becomes an educative device rather than an occasionally excessed civic obligation.”Berry, Portney, and Thomson’s ‘The Rebirth of Urban Democracy’.

While face-to-face contact may not be present, the common thread is a connection with people’s needs beyond the constituency and advisory eye-level. Access to the policy making discourse is fundamental to the public’s ability to narrate and navigate their present into history. However, this type of access is different– in requires engagement, understanding and a type of friendship that levels out the conflict of interest toward a common goal. The point where policies do not reflect equitable degrees of access to engagement, understanding and kinship is the point of degeneration. Inaccurate policy specification in a crisis could be as a result of a reactive divorce between long-term transport policy goals, and short-term interests and Key Performance Indicators. Access at a policy level is actually the extent to which data, information and knowledge about the market has been used to inform policy design, decisions and actions. As a result, we have access to services, opportunities and ideas; and we have access to policy making itself.

Inequitable policy infrastructure makes for inequitable policy decisions

The type and nature of policy positions taken in the transportation sector to respond to COVID-19 reveal the depth of inequality in intellectual effort for the transportation modes used by the many. It is not the depth of inequality that comes from decision today that is revealed, but instead the policy infrastructure that our industries were founded upon in the first place. Where the aviation sector is reinforced by an aviation policy, the custodian is the Civil Aviation Authority which was responsible for presenting a number of guidelines. This was followed by changes in the network side of the market, where the Air Traffic Navigation dimension had to respond to the changes. From there, it was the land-use or property side, through Airports Company South Africa, which was tasked with ensuring compliance within the various airports. Yet, for public transport the policy discourse was limited to a few stanzas on sanitation, and little to nothing on operations given the nature of the disease. How is it that from a regulatory level, the policy infrastructure for public transport of the many is severely inadequate compared to air travel policies– for the few?

The extent to which this fragmentation present could be seen within the transportation research community as Jackie Walters commonly referred to it is “silo planning”. For this note in particular, I want to take it further: inequitable policy making. All transport modes have operators; networks and interchanges or terminals. Just as much as policy responsiveness in aviation is composed of airlines, a navigation requirement, and airports; public and non-motorised transportation require the same degree of attention to policy detail. One could argue that the Single Transport Economic Regulator will enable this direction to manifest. However, the STER, may be a limited instrument for regulatory investigation and inquiry– not a pure policy machine aimed at consolidating and reforming various transportation sectors. Consider the Market Inquiry from the Competition Commission, its flaws are salient but are consistent with competition law’s mannerisms and logical frameworks (with my limited knowledge of the subject). The efforts behind the STER and the Market Inquiry appear to be time-bound policy inputs to set an agenda incrementally– not as part of a comprehensive effort to truly unravel the transportation economy. How could streets be bike friendly when walking and bicycle infrastructure (and services) are not as much of a priority as road infrastructure? Many of the streets in towns outside of major cities remain bland, uncared for and incomplete. How could bus and minibus taxi terminals serve at airport standards when there’s no entity to reflect this need? An audit of these facilities would reveal the profound lack of initiative in the context of service delivery in many neighbourhoods, if it wasn’t for some operators, bus companies and associations. How will land-uses follow a route toward higher densities when transit networks are barely observed and managed as effectively as those in the skies? It would be interesting to see governments absorb routes at scale in a genuine effort to have an integrated platform to understand the transport economy.

At a policy level, the convenience of publishing regulations and pursuing compliance did show a responsible ministry, ready to respond. Now is the time to see what the future of transport in South Africa could truly be like. Who will proactively lead the way beyond the point of resilience (which is the next topic in the policy sphere)?

Thank you for reading this piece, I’m hoping that this gets to the right eyes and ears. A few reports coming your way. Subscribers will get their copy first of course. Stay tuned.

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