August 14, 2008

More Haste, Less Speed for Bus Rapid Transit in SA

ABOUT five years ago, the flood of visits from politicians and managers to the world’s leading Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) cities began. Today, a conservative guess would be that between 500 and 1000 South Africans, among them cabinet ministers, provincial MECs, city mayors, members of mayoral committees, city managers, transport planners, local operators and taxi industry bosses have visited cities such as Bogota in Colombia, Curitiba in Brazil, Santiago in Chile and Rouen in France to see the effect of BRT systems on urban efficiency, urban economy and the daily life of urban commuters.

The question that needs to be answered is: What did we learn, and how are we planning to apply it back home? The implications of the spatial legacy of the apartheid city appear to be one of the most compelling reasons why our planners and politicians, after more than a decade of transport plans that never made it beyond the committee room, decided that BRT would be the intervention to snap us into action. This, combined with the successes of BRT in some Latin American cities with comparable socioeconomic profiles and large informal transport sectors, gave us good reason to go, see, learn and apply.

Today Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth are all planning for the introduction of the first phases of their BRT systems. Most of these are tenuously linked to the hosting of next year’s Confederation Cup and the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

In most cases, our BRT planning processes are extremely well-resourced, with leading international experts advising on operational plans, institutional arrangements, infrastructure design, fare management systems, vehicle specifications and many related aspects of BRT systems.

A number of international aid organisations have also pledged support for studies into emissions, engine specifications, and the projected economic and social effects of BRT systems. In some cases, cities, provinces and the national transport department have started engagements with bus operators and the regional and local minibus taxi industry. One could conclude that we are getting it right and that a critical mass will emerge.

In light of this, the organisers of the recent 27th Annual Southern African Transport Conference and the transport department focused the final day of the conference on prerequisites for participation by established international BRT operators, financiers and vehicle suppliers. Yann Kervella, projects director at Veolia Transport in Paris, one of the world’s largest publicly owned BRT and multi-modal transport operators, outlined the typical factors a seasoned global operator needs to consider. These include the facts that:

  • A BRT is a complete system — it requires integration with the city’s vision and overall plans and should not be treated as a stand-alone transport project;
  • BRT systems require a clear business context, robust business plans based on accurate market analysis and should be driven by simple performance indicators;
  • The starting point in BRT design is not the infrastructure, nor the vehicle or the operating systems; it is “the needs of the people”; and
  • Most successful BRT operations require commencement of contracts with trunk operators two to four years before revenue flows from the system become active.

For a well- functioning BRT to get out of the starting blocks, operators need to be involved in design review, the monitoring and testing of construction, the undertaking of test runs and the possible operation of the system or part of the system during construction; Unless the public authorities undertake this responsibility, operators will need time to establish proper maintenance facilities and support services prior to contract commencement. No BRT system should be launched without the ability to maintain all aspects of operations from day one; and

A main challenge for operators is the securing and training of the people to operate the systems. Often, the initial phases of BRT projects are plagued by high staff turnover and high drop-out rates. Drivers and operating staff from the informal sector who enter the formal and highly disciplined environment of mass transit systems often find it difficult to adjust.

Graham Smith of HSBC London, the world’s leading project finance advisory bank in 2005, 2006 and last year , and financier of, among others, the Bogota and Trans Santiago BRTs, stressed that financiers require certainty about the commercial entities that will be involved in BRT operations. Basic checks would include an assessment of the legal form, governance arrangements, decision-making and deadlock-breaking mechanisms, as well as creditworthiness, track records and tax status of these entities.

Smith was sensitive to treasury concerns about recurring operating subsidies and proposed that the role of export credit agencies be urgently investigated. He said city authorities may need to establish their BRT operations as dedicated, financially ring-fenced special-purpose vehicles in order to attract project funding.

Chisiter Boman of Volvo in Sweden, the major supplier of buses to the Mexico City BRT, among others, said vehicle suppliers would require reasonable lead times and guarantees from the public authorities. He stressed that they would be reluctant to commit to vehicle manufacture orders without understanding the total BRT project, including funding and operating arrangements. He highlighted the fact that the launch of SA’s BRT systems would take place against a backdrop of increasing competition from many cities around the world and that our BRT vehicle specifications come with the additional requirement of right-hand steering.

Chairing the discussion on the final day of the conference, I could not help but conclude with my opening thoughts. After almost two decades of well-intended transport reforms in South African cities, the ability to “step off the plan” and to start implementing has been severely lacking. The fear I expressed is that “the plan becomes the product”. Edgar Enrique Sandoval, the first MD of the Bogota BRT, put it succinctly: unless the BRT in practice offers the minibus industry and current and prospective public transport users better alternatives to those they have now, the system will fail.

The second concern I expressed dealt with the growing South African phenomenon of getting the cart and the horse in the wrong configuration. As much as I subscribe to the early involvement of all parties during complex change processes, I do not suggest that you start engagements unless you know what you are talking about. With little substance pertaining to BRT business plans on the table , it should not come as a surprise that recent discussions with the minibus industry ended in classical statements such as “we want 100% control of all BRTs”.

Engagement without substance is foolish. Consultation without a clear process and agreed parameters is dangerous. Negotiation without all affected parties at the table, clear ground rules and a balanced focus on both the collective and the separate interests of all parties, are doomed to fail.

My final concern related to another current-day South African public sector pathology, the “Yes, minister” syndrome. Too many of our officials fail in their task of telling their political bosses what they need to hear. Instead, they tell them what they think they want to hear. In the case of planning for the implementation of BRT systems, one cannot help but conclude that the linking of even first-phase BRT operations to 2010, let alone next year’s Confederation Cup is a serious case of “overpromise” and “underdelivery” waiting to happen.

Although the conference concluded that the focus on 2010 provides a useful milestone for the BRT planning timetable, the mood in the auditorium was one of “let’s not set ourselves up for failure”.

There is simply too much riding on the need to demonstrate early success with the introduction of the first BRT systems in SA. The treasury has set aside more than R5bn for the design and construction of BRT systems in South African cities. It is now understandably asking cities to show how their BRT system will be operated and funded and not to spring surprises on the treasury when it comes to requests for contingent operational subsidies.

With current commitments to large-scale Asgi-SA (Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for SA) projects and predictable medium to long pressures from sectors such as energy, water and local government on the national fiscus, our BRT systems have to be planned to be conducive to attract funding from international financiers, participation of experienced global operators and the reliable supply of environmentally appropriate vehicles and parts by established and experienced BRT vehicle suppliers.

In this context, South African BRT planners also need to appreciate the size of the pond in which we will be competing for money, expertise and vehicles and should be careful not to overestimate our standing or eligibility for special treatment in a market slowdown.

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