254 | National Household Travel Survey raises questions about the purpose of public transport subsidies

OVER-THE-HILL: The will to climb over the historical hills and not blame apartheid, for anything anymore, has come anyway. Although, the timelines are different, our state has not had the same 100 years, we must acknowledge that neither did the minibus taxi industry, nor have pedestrians or cyclists. We might need to start investing in the right direction now, in order to avoid the same past and tense finger pointing at history for directions for the future.

The recently published National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) raises questions about integrated transport planning, and the public transport subsidy especially when cracking the apartheid spatial planning code.

If history had it, we would retain an 80:20 split between public and private transport. Considering that walking takes place in public spaces, say it is also a form of public transport. Alternatively, say it is not, this 80:20 split would depend heavily on the minibus taxi industry. Both are highly unsubsidised modes, should they be?

Either way, the survey reveals how much more purpose public transport subsidisation could have, but it raises eyebrows about whether we’ve been planning in an integrated fashion in the past two decades or not. 

Travel patterns 

Most of the travel demand is for education and work, a little bit for retail. 17.4 million people walk all the way to their destinations, that is 41.7% of all trips. This is driven by education related travel as 59.4% of learners walk all the way, and 20.3% of work trips are completely on foot. However, at the household level, walking all the way accounted for only 2.2% of household trips, down from 18.5%. 

The absolute numbers matter, we have at least 17.4  million pedestrians on our streets, do they have sidewalks? Safe walking spaces? Bikeways in case they are willing to cycle? 

Anyway, subsidies are directed toward buses, and trains which only account for 1.8 million and 310 000 people respectively. These two modes have enjoyed significant protectionist legislation for railways since the 1930’s to facilitate economically inefficient spatial segregation practices.  For buses, subsidisation especially since the Levies Act and Transport Services Act between 1952 and 1972. 

Over the years, the spatial patterns changed, travel demand changed, people changed but the subsidy and economic regulatory regimes have not changed as much. 

The demand for public transport has declined by 12%, but minibus taxi travel has increased from 3.67 million to 3.75 million trips between 2013 and 2020. The dip is due to fewer work trips by bus, and even less by train; but learners have increased bus use. 

Car use is on the rise, by 5% to almost 20% of the mode choice by households. But, road infrastructure, a massive state-led capital budget, only serves 10 million people. 

Whereas, public transport journeys by minibus taxi account for 25% of all trips conducted, with zero-subsidies over the past 50 years. At a household level, minibus taxi use has increased its share by 20.2% between 2013 and 2020. 

With a new public transport subsidy regime in the pipeline, the NHTS provides some insight about what the situation for education, work and business travel is like. But, the data is only as useful as the purpose of our analysis. 

Why subsidise public transport when so many learners and workers walk? Is it to improve public transport so that it becomes more competitive against the car or is it to improve the well-being of people and communities? 

How have the subsidy regimes for Metrorail, or commuter buses translated into lower transport disadvantageor curbed the likelihood of “transit deserts”? These are difficult questions, but having a purpose before data is one step closer to thinking about them.

Purpose-driven subsidies bear fruits

 ‘Goal-oriented transit’, or in Jarrett Walker’s terms “Purpose-Driven Public Transport” asks officials to focus on the purpose of this particular transport service. It is a choice between extremes: to serve as many people as possible, or to cover the greatest possible distance. 

The subsidy strategy has different types of gaps to fill, it is not as easy as operator or user subsidies—that is only the monetary side of the hot topic . 

Here’s an “if” exercise to illustrate why goals matter. If the goal is to transport as many people as possible, then for that route, the size of the vehicle needs to be appropriate. 

If it is to cover as much of Matatiele as possible, then the distance needs to be subsidised because passengers may not be able to cover those costs.

If the distance is so great that passengers wait too long, then an additional number of vehicles need to subsidise the service to save passengers time. In the recent survey, travel cost is becoming more important than travel time. (But that won’t fool anyone: time is money!)

Casually speaking, it makes intuitive sense. But the technical characteristics of the work related to determining “how many” and “how much” demands that we shift our focus closer toward issues at a human scale (customers, operators and officials).  

Perhaps we need to be frank about what transport is really for, and the original White Paper on National Transport Policy spells this as clear, mint-green-fresh as Zam-Buk: “ensure that people experience improving levels of mobility and accessibility”.

To this the silo approach to transport planning will have to fall by the wayside, and as Fatoumata Diallo argues, we need to acknowledge the various interdisciniplary skills involved in transport projects and services with much greater nuance than imported reverence. 

Less transport is better for integrated transport planning

In order to reap the rewards of an improved public transport system we also need to acknowledge that transport is not the goal. Prof Stephan Krygsman made this point recently when he spoke to Ina Opperman

He explained, as he always had to us as students, that transport is an inconvenience, an impedance. The point is to have less of transport and more of where we are going!

The idea that integrated transport planning is about integrating transport modes (bus, taxi, road, rail, air, walking and cycling) is where the real problem is. 

See, in academia many of us have accepted that transport is deeply connected with where people live, enjoy and work. But many of the solutions in the political realm are still focused on solving or fixing “transport”. Which is not the point. 

The point is to reduce people’s need to spend time and money commuting. This means decentralising work opportunities, changing the spatial narrative of townships and villages, and encouraging compact-mixed use land. 

Doing so forces transport, and real-estate professionals to face bid-rent issues, affordable housing locations, finding innovative solutions for commercial property development and the transport networks in between. 

In other words, a bold goal would be to create a transport economy in which the average person can reach most of their needs within 15-minutes. These 15-minute villages, neighbourhoods, and cities are not about distance, but time (and that is speed). In SA, 79% of households reach a minibus taxi within 15 minutes, and 75% for buses. That is only to reach the transport network, not their destination.

Now it is a housing, local economic development and transport problem (among others).  This is what is meant by integrated transport planning. 

So here it is: when we think about subsidising public transport, it needs to be packaged with the property development changes that transform space from apartheid planning to say 15-minute neighbourhoods. 

Such a purpose, would change the angle and tone embedded in the National Household Travel Survey, making it more rich and tied toward a specific goal. 

At a political level, choosing to only focus on the subsidy route, could create transport networks that are so responsive to land-use changes that they follow or lead social housing projects, industrial property and others to the outskirts of economic activity.

Eventually creating 100-mile cities, where people commute extreme distances, 100-million people cities where agglomeration starts having diminishing returns. Fighting sprawl is difficult and expensive, many cities have tried.  

So, what is the purpose of subsidising public transport in South Africa, and how will this change if walking, minibus taxis, and spatial transformation are part of the criteria? More questions than answers, again. 

Thank you for reading.

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