#214 Form follows function— transport policy design and practice

OPEN RAODS– Sunrise in the horizon, a landscape paints the mounds, dots of light, and the tar coming toward us in view. There’s something magnificent about good quality infrastructure, it’s like a secret source of excitement for engineers but a covert sauce mixed into the transport economists and planners’ enthusiasm. It’s the one place where both meet with awe, but a step toward the right brings us to the principles which make such infrastructure possible: ‘policy design’. Not the strategies, or public statements, but the actual policies one can not pretend to be familiar with. I’ve met officials who quote Acts in sequence with their amendments, by year and number– it’s a skill. There is a bit of magic and imagination in between, which seems to slack when we climb higher.

Okay, the first policy document I read was the White Paper on National Transport Policy of 1996. It read like a forward looking narrative driven through Mac Maharaj between 1994 and 1999. This was probably one of the most prolific periods in South African transport development. The sense of urgency brought about some key reforms and the then ministry’s attitude toward transport was not just about catalysts.

It is severely more convenient to claim that the market is “unregulated” or “informal”, this is embarrassingly far from the truth: if you don’t believe me, buy a 14 seater taxi and start transporting passengers today.

Formation of SANTACO

Through 1996 up to 2000, there was an impetus to reform the minibus taxi industry. It was a dual effort to coordinate dialogues between the major structures for a constitution and an procedural policy for the sector. The bi- product was the so called SANTACO constitution and the National Land Transport Transition Act of 2000. Such a crucial time lead to the present day regulation of the minibus taxi industry. The industry on a national level has sparked significant commercial and industrial activity. Transport financing, petrol stations, property development around taxi ranks, advertising and corporatism scattered to varying degrees near neighborhoods. Industrially, it boasts a huge incentive base for vehicle manufacturing and the value chain associated with vehicle parts and maintence. Emerging from the 1970s to date, it’s micro-enterprises have made ways for many households, but the lag in economic regulation does not reflect its dominance in the market. It is severely more convenient to claim that the market is “unregulated” or “informal”, this is embarrassingly far from the truth: if you don’t believe me, buy a 14 seater taxi and start transporting passengers today. What is worse is the lack of genuine transport planning, it was quite obvious when the Minister had to rescind the 100% capacity requirement to 70% capacity. They had no measure to estimate this impact because of the top-down nature of national governance, while policies are crafted for bottom-up.

Rising highway concessions

Along the same period, it appears that the Ministry focused intensely on finding ways to refurbish and provide economic infrastructure. Highway infrastructure was a key part of setting an economic basis, but with public funds stretched and an emerging market crisis between 96 and 98, money was tight. Yet in that period, the South African Road Agency Limited spread some 1300km of major highways to public-private partnerships. The N1, N4 and N3 corridors were refurbished, operated and maintained by concession companies— this stretches public funds to go longer. While the concession companies still operate, invest and expand the road ways, tolls are charged to users and in a few years the concessions may be renegotiated. The towns they pass through are not divided by the corridors, instead many are fed by these black veins pumping an economy’s fuel. Some take lives as drivers float in fatigue or roll over the yellow line in an attempt to escape a maneuver. Yet, we keep the paradox for its benefits outweigh the costs, but economies grow and wider roads tend to choke economies by their white dashes at some point. As the journey vanishes and the varnish wears off, road infrastructure debates as ‘public goods’ are a hot plate for contention. All the tension usually starves those who need to dine the most.

Metrorail off its tracks

Although it seems drenched a poverty of ideas, the policy design for PRASA is severely more liberal than the popular discourse would like us to believe.

Those were interesting times. They were the definitive periods for the formation of what we call the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). PRASA was really a product of the reshuffling implies in the Legal Succession Act. On paper, the Agency was a remarkably integrated corporation, which reflected both the transport and land-use side of the railway tracks. Here’s the special bit: with its property portfolio and access to Transnet Ltd, it had the capacity to expand its footprint and trail through townships it help build in a different direction. Did that dart ever hit the target? It appears something happened there that is so difficult to reconcile with, that the cost of turmoil canvassed as transport for the poor’ is unsustainable demagoguery. A degree of intimidating creativity to revitalize the Agency is called for in this digital and experiential era. Well crafted plans may serve as signs, but an entity embroiled with manual authorisations and dwindling corporate culture, might make a proud working day seem longer than distant. Although it seems drenched a poverty of ideas, the policy design for PRASA is severely more liberal than the popular discourse would like us to believe. The policy design is customer oriented, marketised and liberal (really), but the practice is saturated, a derailed and dangerous melting pot chaining lives to its tracks.

Policy design <craft>

Policy design is a craft. It could have been something passed down and held in its fixed form, such as the Puritans. A textbook tie-down, while the world moves away from the ship’s anchor. Policies are like vehicles. At some point, they are updated, repaired, discarded or abandoned — worse in many cases they are ignored and neglected. While they are subject to interpretation, their interaction with one another makes the fiscal policy machinery work to deliver popular and unpopular promises. There are the essential promises, the most important ones– the difference between poverty and opportunity. For the ‘minibus taxi industry’ the policy infrastructure is there, but the actual roadways aren’t; for SANRAL’s concessions opportunities are obvious, but the policy narrative isn’t; for PRASA’s failure to develop the policy is clear, but termites of time have eaten the entity’s transparency and capacity. Fighting the opaque nature of describing some of these issues as an outsider, I can sense a new era. A time where ‘errors’ could be encouraged or come at high price.

2001, listen to Hymphatic Tabs’ “Error Era” album here, it’s the background music to this piece. Contextualising the chaos, spatial form, and battle for creative freedom in the new dispensation. Reflecting perhaps the contrasted, and conflicted generation caught between inheriting a past, and translating their present. Two new languages in caught in the present day.

New week! Thank you for visiting, reading and your patience. Find me on twitter @oh_mokwena, I’m there sometimes, but my blog, current affairs and all that jazz are there always.

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