Transportation infrastructure for the urban poor

Transportation infrastructure is a key factor in enhancing economic growth and quality of life. Still, many recent transportation initiatives, by focusing on cars and highways, have favored the rich and the middle class. The following articles explore ways to provide safe, affordable, eco-friendly, and reliable transportation to the poor in the Global South.

Read on to see reports from our community managers in Johannesburg, Lagos, Mumbai, Dhaka, Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, and Bogotá, then join the discussion in the comments below.

Rio de Janeiro
Tariq Toffa

Johannesburg's new urban transport initiatives: between the market and the marginalised?

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager


Apartheid policies in South Africa made for ineffective cities. Fragmented and segmented, Johannesburg has an ambivalent relationship with public transport. Historically, more affluent, mostly northern white suburbs were provided with extensive transport infrastructure, such as electric trams (1906-48) and later highways (see Fig. 1). By contrast, the denser and poorer black townships, mostly in the south, were provided with limited and marginalised rail and bus public transport. Yet out of desperate need by being located far away from major industrial and commercial centres, in the 1970s a mini-bus taxi industry emerged, which has grown to serve approximately 72 percent of all public transport users.

Despite a number of post-1994 initiatives, urban transport system problems persist. Recently (2006-2012), in the largest Public Private Partnership yet launched in South Africa, between the Gauteng Provincial Government and Bombela International Consortium, a rapid rail project worth R20 billion (US$ 2 billion) was implemented. The "Gautrain" rapid rail network consists of two spines: one (south-north) linking Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the other (west-east) linking the Sandton business district and OR Tambo International airport. Coupled with this, in 2007 the City began constructing an ambitious Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) known as the "Rea Vaya" (see Fig. 2).

The new systems address speed, efficiency, and traffic decongestion, as well as problems of safety, facilities, and crime that have affected the taxi industry. Crucially, the BRT in particular improves access of marginalised communities to industrial and commercial centers: firstly linking the townships in the south to Johannesburg's CBD (phase 1A and 1B), and subsequently linking Alexandra township in the north with Sandton and Johannesburg's CBD (phase 1C). Together with the Gautrain, it is envisioned as a key catalyst for the city's Transit Orientated Development (TOD) plan for urban regeneration and economic development at transit hubs. Hence two BRT routes (phase 1B and 1C) will become "corridors" of mixed-use development.

In contrast to the BRT, the Gautrain, in catering purely for the affluent car owner/user, from a social perspective clearly suffers from the criticism of class/mobility-related exclusion; although this could be offset by a BRT system that, unlike the Gautrain where there is no clarity in providing mixed-income residential development around its stations, clearly allows for mixed-income along BRT corridors.

Nonetheless, on the whole, both projects direct growth toward former white group areas which are developed, and not toward new corridor and nodal development in previously underdeveloped areas; and so they also do not remove the burden of excessive and reverse commuting. The terminal infrastructure developments of both projects, too, are located away from the marginal communities' location.

Other issues include the sustained opposition by some organisations within the taxi industry, which the BRT wishes to absorb, and the high cost of the BRT (R35 million / US$ 3.5 million per km, and at least R7 million / US$ 700,000 per BRT station). It is unclear how much investment was essential for the long-term operational sustainability of the project, and how much could also have been creatively employed for the project to balance other more social priority purposes.

At first glance the Gautrain/BRT initiative appears a master-stroke of integrative urban transport; yet while it is still incomplete and without a full-scale evaluation of its impact, particularly for poor neighbourhoods and travel patterns, from a social perspective, the jury is still out.

Fig. 1: Early twentieth century electric trams (Beavon 2001)
Fig. 2: Historic racial segregation, with new BRT and Gautrain routes (map by author)



Enrique Peñalosa (former mayor of Bogotá and renowned urban planner) once made a really interesting statement that I think somehow fits into this week's topic: "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport".

In the same line as Peñalosa, I think that many of this week’s articles aren’t necessarily discussing transportation infrastructure exclusively for the poor; the articles are illustrating the importance of integrating transportation systems and of developing alternative sources of transportation beyond cars that benefit a wider group of population. There is a common need in most of the cities that covers to develop measures that reduce the use of cars, as well as mechanisms that ensure safe and effective public transportation for all city dwellers.

On a separate note, the cases of Bogota and Rio are pretty significant to me, as they highlight that it’s not enough to put in place metros, BRTs and other creative massive transportation systems, if they aren’t properly maintained, timely repaired and expanded in order to avoid the levels of saturation reached in these cities. This is food for thought for cities that haven’t reached such levels yet…

Jorge Bela's picture

Cata, you are right in pointing out how maintenance and upkeep are often neglected. In Bogotá mayors have a one four-year term limit, with no reelection. This gives little political incentive for long term planning, and all political incentive for short term high impact achievements. Unfortunately the Transmilenio in Bogotá has not been expanded sufficiently, and it is so overcrowded that at peak hours lines can go no for blocks, only to get into the station, and then jam into the buses.

But to take your point further, as many articles this week and in previous weeks point out, it is social division what creates the problem in the first place. As the poorest citizens are priced out of neighborhoods near the places they work, long commutes become a must for them. As this process becomes more and more pronounced, the commutes grow longer as well.

Tariq Toffa's picture

Great point, Jorge; and as very well made by others too. The city, in one sense, is a spatialisation of inequalities. Transport initiatives such as the BRT are therefore not about moving groups of people around more efficiently only (although this is important as well). They also consolidate or catalyse new kinds of development trajectories.

In the case of Jhb/SA, the BRT is still in the process of being implemented & its future affects is still something of an unknown:

Will the patterns of commuting between poorer areas and economic centres become overcrowded again, because new centralities in poorer areas were not created?;
The City has promoted securing new mixed income housing along the BRT corridors, yet development along these corridors will become prime property &, in economic terms, will not be feasible to have the poor living there;
There are also established communities which feel threatened by the prospect of new denser development.

SA cities are changing. From a social perspective though, I’m sure, many things will also remain the same.

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

The BRT transport system achieves various things, safer and faster commute at affordable prices, a little more comfort compared to previously existing mass transport buses, reducing congestion and recently a convenient pre-paid ticketing system. With all its achievements it could do better with decongestion and being more inclusive.

The system categorically caters to a certain class of people while excluding middle class citizens. Little adjustments to the scheme such as an available bus schedule and timing to ascertain arrival and departure of buses will attract more people to the transport system and reduce fleets of private cars on Lagos roads daily, bus terminals with better covering protecting user from harsh weather conditions such as rain and the always hot temperature of the city while waiting for the bus, more seats etc. Just little things that make BRT more accessible and attractive to the general public. The ticketing system is definitely a right step, but to effectively se BRT to decongest, it has to appeal to all social classes in the city, this also means there is need for more BRT routes especially for areas heavily used.

Jorge Bela's picture

Hi Wura,

While unquestionably BRT will make a significant improvement in citywide congestion, I wonder how congested the BRT system is. In Bogotá it is operating beyond capacity. On peak hours it is close to unbearable. All large city systems experience congestion at peak times (we all have seen images of people packers at Tokio subway) But BRT are specially uncomfortable and prone to glitches at peak hours. Is the operation so far smooth in Lagos?

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

There is definitely peak hour congestion in every city, BRT in Lagos though has a fairly decent system of keeping the BRT decongested. Going from conversations with frequent users, I understand there is a cap on the number of people that can be boarded once the seats are filled to capacity, to occupy the standing spaces, and the buses run quite frequently running within about 15 minutes intervals during morning rush hours. However, due to the relative frequency, few people are willing to stand for the journey and just wait for the next available the best of my knowledge so far it's a smooth operation, congestion wise. I imagine the exclusive lanes on the corridors where they run helps with frequency and lessens the need to congest the first available bus.

widya anggraini's picture

Indonesian government currently considers applying low cost and green car policy. The main argument was to encourage the growth of Indonesia automobile industry and to allow more people with lower income posses a car. So many debates and counterarguments with this plan such as 60% of materials are imported so the policy will not help domestic car industry and, for sure, it is going to add to existing traffic congestion.

I agree with Enrique Peñalosa quoted by Catalina. It is a wise advise for government to not only benefiting the lobbying group but should look closely in the spirit of providing affordable public transport. The case of Jakarta is one of example of good leadership of the new elected governor in managing transportation infrastructure. Sometimes, what we need in creating good transportation is good political will, as the first step.

At this particular topic, I really interested in what Carlin wrote about CUMTA with their ambition to change walking and biking as the main focus of transportation mode. Can i know if there is anything implemented yet by these four working groups and how will they get the fund for their activities?

widya anggraini

Carlin Carr's picture

Widya, thanks for your questions on the cycle-sharing program and cycle track initiative that the city of Chennai is rolling out in India. The fact that 3,000 cycle shares will be available in the city soon is enormous. Other cities, including Mumbai and Pune, have made small efforts toward this, but never with more than a couple hundred cycles. Chennai's effort shows a strong commitment and, if it works, might just change how planners think about going forward with the car-centric development in cities across the nation. However, the success of Chennai's program is contingent upon a few points. The Times of India, among other newspapers, has been watching these developments in Chennai closely and the paper outlined 6 key areas that need to be fixed/paid attention to, including infrastructure, safety features, marketing, financing & viability, maintenance and bicycle design. The marketing part is really interesting to me, because it has become so trendy to own a car while the bike has become a means for only the poor. This is a huge mindset shift that needs to take place. The ToI article says that it cycling needs to be shown as "environment-friendly, healthy and hip transit option." Should be interesting to see these campaigns as they roll out.

On your question of financial viability, there will be some minor user fees but the main revenues will from advertising, sponsorship and parking fees. Since the city corporation is not trying to earn money off of this, the revenues generated are to cover operating costs.

Since the bikes will come first, it is essential that the cycle lanes and tracks come to life quickly too. With the current traffic situation, it's just too dangerous now to think that the program will work without the two ideas coming up in tandem. It's fantastic to see this all happening here, and if it works, I can't stress enough how important a model this is for city planners all over India.

Jorge Bela's picture

Today it was announced that the IADB is granting a 40$US loan to the city for the purchase of the hybrid buses I describe in my article. This brings the project a definitive step closer to becoming a reality. Buses are expected to start running on December 15. I will keep URB.IM posted on whether this ultimately happens or not.

Hello everyone. Thank you for the thread of lively discussion on sustainable transport in this website. I am happy to be able to find this site and to read the positive trends on this issue. I do believe such positive trends could happen when we are led by visionary leaders who have the political goodwill to serve the public. Please allow me to continue following up the ongoing debates on improvement of urban transport in our respective cities. I myself come from Jakarta and currently studying MSc Transport and City Planning at Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. May I know, where else can I find useful sites like this, that provides the most up-to-date discussion and resources on issues related to sustainable cities, urban transport and environment? Thank you for your thoughtful advice.

Carlin Carr's picture

Anges, welcome to the discussion. You are probably already following EMBARQ, but their blog, the CityFix, is one of the best out there on transportation issues. I think they even have a "blogroll" on the side column of the CityFix's site, so you can get a comprehensive list of other good transportation-focused sites to follow. We also often cover transport on, so keep checking back!

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