Enrique Penalosa – the iconic Colombian mayor who transformed the city of Bogota, together with top Latin American and US transport experts – has been contracted as an adviser to Cape Town mayor Helen Zille, who hopes to emulate Penalosa’s example.
Penalosa, who was mayor from 1998 to 2001, changed the face of Bogota by revolutionising public transport with the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, which has since spread all over the world. He now works for the New York-based Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.
BRT is a road-based public transport system in which buses operate within dedicated lanes. The buses are boarded at specially constructed stations, usually on the road median.
The station infrastructure is publicly owned while private operators tender for contracts from the city. An integral part of the public transport system is better facilities for pedestrians to make it possible for people to perform parts of their journey or daily business on foot.
Penalosa was famous for taking on the Colombian equivalent of the minibus taxi operators, removing cars from streets and sidewalks and reclaiming public space for pedestrians.
His advice to Zille is the same as his general message: “The only possible system for any city is buses. You can have some rail, but it’s impossible for rail to go all over the city. Even in London, which has 8 000 km of rail, 50% more people use buses. In Bogota it was simply the most cost-effective scheme.”
Buses are not just cheaper, they are better too, says Penalosa. Bus systems are more flexible than rail and offer more variations on the route. They can also go faster when needed, while trains are limited by rail infrastructure.
But if buses make so much sense, then why aren’t there more of them?
“Bus systems are politically difficult to implement,” says Penalosa. “They take space away from cars and operators, like minibus taxis. So it’s easier to put in some rail.”
Some Johannesburg taxi operators have already announced that they would resist the BRT introduction in the city, though the municipality is trying to involve them as shareholders of the project.
Another mistake that cities – especially in the developed world – have made in managing public transport has been to build more roads. But building more roads has caused people to use cars to travel further, with congestion soon back to where it was before.
“It’s impossible to solve traffic problems by building more roads. You cannot build yourself out of a traffic jam. Fifty years ago this is what the big cities of the world did. They thought they had to build cities for cars, not for people. Now, they are realising that it is not the way to go,” says Penalosa.
Cities like New York are now starting to build BRT systems; others like Seoul and Boston are spending billions of dollars demolishing freeways or putting them underground.
In implementing its BRT, Bogota faced similar political dynamics to those of SA cities. The local equivalent of minibus taxis moved 85% of people but, like SA taxi owners, were lawless, chaotic and inefficient.
Private operators were brought on board by enabling them to purchase large stakes in companies bidding for the new bus contracts.
“Change is pain,” says Penalosa, but benefits for everyone will be enormous. Profits in BRT companies can be large and working conditions better than in informal employment.
Better public transport will also get Cape Town working as a tourist destination as “tourism is a pedestrian activity” and with less of people’s income spent on cars and fuel, the quality of living would improve and Cape Town would become a more competitive city.
Cape Town’s BRT planning is just getting going, with the plan of the first phase of the project to be presented to Zille’s mayoral committee this week.
Penalosa and his fellow Americans are involved in a joint venture with several SA companies, including Hunter Van Ryneveld, a consultancy formed by municipal financial specialists Roland Hunter and Philip van Ryneveld.
Johannesburg, on the other hand, is at least a year ahead, with construction for station infrastructure and dedicated bus lanes already under way.
Efficient public transport systems are not just good for the economy but also for democracy, says Penalosa.
“By giving priority to public transport over private cars, you send out a powerful symbol that public good has priority over private interests.”
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