November 09, 2007

JOHANNESBURG MAKEOVER: It’s better by bus

Jo’burg believes its new bus system will boost property development. By pulling two levers, Johannesburg is hoping to transform itself. One of them is the city’s modest infrastructure budget. The other an ambitious project to create a world-class public transport system that has to date been noticeably lacking in Jo’burg.

Strategic spending sounds like something every council talks of doing but in Jo’burg it is the vast infrastructure backlogs and limited resources (about R4bn/year for infrastructure investments in a city of 3,2m people) that are focusing the minds of the city’s planners.

The second lever is the boldest move the city has made to date in planning for its expansion and rapid population growth over the next decade.

About 330 km of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes will be built over the next few years, creating for the first time a sensible east-west transport axis and strengthening the north-south corridor.

WHAT IT MEANS
330 km of dedicated bus routes planned
City wants to convert 15% of motorists to commuter bus users

According to the city, traffic congestion has increased by 26% since 1999. Minibus taxis make up 72% of public transport in 12 500 taxis, with trains constituting 14% and buses only 9%. About 600 000 people travel through the CBD every day.

Modelled on the Bogota BRT system work has already begun on phase one: from Soweto, via the CBD, Rosebank and Sandton, to Rivonia. Much of the initial BRT investment will service the requirements of visitors to the 2010 World Cup. The second part of phase one will link Alexandra to Roodepoort through Sandton and Randburg.

City transport head Bob Stanway says that in the next few months the major contracts for the R2bn first phase will be awarded and announced.

Johannesburg residents can look forward to more road diversions as the work begins in earnest to meet the first deadline of April 2009. “The timelines are tight,” admits Stanway, adding though that a lot of the strategic work is well on track, including getting the taxi industry to accept and buy into the project. (See Features October 19.)

It is envisioned that the taxi industry will partially own and operate the buses for the BRT, under contract to the city, to replace many of the minibus taxis that race through the city’s streets.

In its effort to achieve a mix of 70% public and 30% private transport by 2010, the BRT buses will have priority on the roads. They will have right of way and exclusive use of the central lanes, which will be modified to allow for boarding platforms every 500 m-750 m.

They will run every one to three minutes during peak hours – three hours in the morning and three hours in the late afternoon. During off-peak periods the buses will run every 10 minutes. Initially they will be operational between 5 am and midnight, but long-term a 24-hour service is planned.

The first phase, until 2013, will cost R2bn and will cover an area of about 120 km. Stanway says work still has to be done on phasing in the rest of the network but that the council has the resources to drive the project for the next six years.

A large part of the remainder of the city’s infrastructure budget will support developments along the BRT roads. By putting in additional power, water and waste services along these routes the council can channel developers to these areas. Many other areas, in the north of Jo’burg in particular, simply cannot accommodate more projects, though that’s where property developers would prefer to focus.

Property economist Prof Francois Viruly says the expected residential growth along BRT routes would require additional infrastructure investment by the city but would boost the area.

“A good transport system into Randburg, for example, could convert it into the next Sandton and double the space available for retail and commercial development,” says Viruly.

He expects that urban boundary land prices “will carry on rocketing up, and affordability will push people to live in smaller units. It will support the state view on boosting inclusionary housing and bringing lower-income housing into new areas.”

The success of the BRT will depend on whether motorists will give up their cars and use public transport. That in turn will require that the buses are safe and reliable; and they must make money for the operators.

Alfred Sam, Jo’burg’s director of transport & planning, says the BRT has been planned with passenger safety in mind. “What will influence people to use the BRT is the extent to which they believe the system works.” He says buses will be constantly monitored via a central control system, while security will be present at each of the stations. Each bus will also be kitted out with a CCTV camera.

Sam says it is unlikely there will be delays since the buses will have priority in traffic and have lanes for their exclusive use and automatic right of way to ensure they will always get to their destination faster than other vehicles.

He hopes motorists will start to leave their cars at home when they see buses gliding through car-choked roads.

The council, though, has not raised expectations too high. Sam says in other countries that have implemented BRTs there has been a slow migration from private to public transport. “Cities which have had them in place for five to six years have seen a decrease in private car use of between 10% and 15%,” he says.

The BRT trunk routes will be backed by feeder routes with smaller buses. To be feasible, the BRT needs to carry about 3 000 passengers an hour during peak times, but ideally up to 8 000 passengers an hour during this time on the main routes.

Herman Pienaar, a director in the department of development planning & urban management, says the BRT just needs to attract 15% of the people living within 500 m of BRT routes for the system to be financially practical.

Stanway says the BRT system will overlap with other planned transport infrastructure, particularly the Gautrain, though the bus system will target commuters who now rely on buses and taxis to get around the city.

The Gautrain’s fares will be higher as it is aimed at people who need to travel to areas outside the Jo’burg metro district. The two systems will interlink at Park Station, Rosebank and Sandton.

Gautrain CEO Jack van der Merwe says that growing confidence in the R22bn project is attracting developers who are keen to build alongside the route. He lists Old Mutual’s R20bn Sonke Sizwe shopping centre in Midrand as an example and says the Gautrain office has also been contacted by developers wanting to integrate an 80-storey hotel with its Sandton station.

As with the BRT, Van der Merwe says the Gautrain should encourage people to avoid using cars, particularly during peak hours.

Another advantage to public transport is reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, as the International Association of Public Transport estimates that the energy consumption of buses per passenger per kilometre is one-third that of a car.

At a provincial level, the BRT will complement the recently launched Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP), a network of ring roads connecting Gauteng’s three metros – Jo’burg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni. It will also include a direct link to Soweto for the first time.

The tolled road network, run by the SA National Roads Agency, will eventually comprise 561 km. The first phase of the project, up to 2010, will cost R12bn and will consist of an upgrade of the existing 180 km freeway network through additional lanes and major interchange improvements. The second phase, due for completion in 2015, will cost R20bn, and the final phase, to be completed by 2018, R23bn.

Francois Viruly BRT is a trigger for new development.

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