Transport and the post-colonial city: Cape Town's new Integrated Transport Plan for 2032

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager
Cape Town, 23 October 2014

Originally founded on a peninsula to serve European imperial sea trade, today the CBD of Cape Town is wholly peripheral. Deeply racialized during apartheid, the city is also radial; with the CBD ringed closest by white social groups and affluence, and further away by black, increasingly poorer and less developed areas. The latter typically commute long distances by public transport to the CBD and other employment centres; while the former, with high levels of car ownership and only 10 percent use of public transport, contribute to making Cape Town the most congested city in the country.

These socio-spatial structures began to be challenged for the first time in the post-apartheid/1994 dispensation. However, transport (train, mini-bus taxi, and bus) still remained fragmented/segregated. In 2012 the City established a single authority to integrate and manage this network called Transport for Cape Town, and in 2014 launched its R32 billion ($3.2bn) Integrated Public Transport Network plan to achieve this by 2032. This includes a BRT system across the whole city, called MyCiTi, to be implemented in five phases (Phase 1 is current) (fig. 1).

The transport plan — like other City plans — rightfully understands transport to be about much more than efficient mobility. Specifically, it promotes the idea of "socially sustainable" transport, which "speak to the needs of the disadvantaged and the marginalized," and even seeks to "promote understanding and acceptance" by facilitating "interaction and social encounters."

Apart from a lack of historical context, there is little that can be faulted with the principles of the transport plan. What may be in question, however, is the appropriateness of the solutions proposed. Criticism, for example, has been directed at the focus on relieving traffic congestion for the CBD and adjoining areas first, before addressing the needs of poorer areas. Others have argued that the city's spread-out, low average densities were not suited to BRT corridor development, which typically require more passengers along shorter routes, and that incremental upgrading of existing rail and bus infrastructure was more appropriate.

Moreover, to avoid a dispersal (like the city's web-like taxi network - fig. 2) of investment, impact, and opportunity — albeit via selected BRT corridors — it is crucial that bus and rail be fully integrated, to allow development zones to be strategic, and not scattered along lengthy BRT corridors (a total of 57.79 km). However, critical rail proposals (fig. 3) are still in the discussion phases, while BRT plans are already well underway.

More generally, a contiguous and high quality (rapid) rail supported by road-based infrastructure probably has the best chance to manage public transportation in large, polycentric urban areas. In the South African context, this should also be geared toward catalyzing new centralities and urban systems over the long term, which redress colonial and apartheid structures to create more just and integrated cities. If the primacy of established nodes remains entrenched, apartheid-shaped transport patterns will also remain unchanged, and there will also be little opportunity for new social interactions across the city.

Described by the City as "practical," "realistic," and "sensible," ultimately Cape Town's transport plan is a conservative answer to deep social, economic, racial, spatial, and historical divisions; essentially, to bring greater efficiency to current commuter flows (fig. 4). However, as implied in the plan's foundational principles, transport must take on a wider, proactive role: to respond to the growth and complexity of modern cities, but also a responsible role, in redressing its own complicity in the creation of unjust settlement patterns. In the most unequal society in the world, simply put, it is a case of modifications to the status quo, or transformation of it.

Photos: Fig. 1: Author; fig. 2, 4: City of Cape Town; fig. 3: PRASA

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