Politics, passengers and practice: There's a lot riding on Johannesburg's BRT

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 27 July 2015

Political transformation in South Africa also meant spatial transformation. Much improvement in city spatial planning has been made over the last two decades. Moving away from more prescriptive and comprehensive forms of planning, both internationally and in South Africa, broad spatial frameworks have now become a standard form of planning in South Africa, which typically rely on spatial tools such as nodes and corridors. This trajectory has moved from planning as control to planning as a loose facilitation, but it is not without its criticisms. It has been described as too utopian, contradicted by national policy, and disconnected to property and housing markets and to local-level decision-making, land use management, and infrastructure planning. It is also oriented toward formal rather than informal sector employment. Nonetheless, the approach has provided indicative guidance for spatial development, particularly in restructuring space in the post-apartheid city.

Spatial transformation has also been significantly predicated on public transport. With the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link, the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Programme and associated e-tolling, and municipal Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) infrastructure underway in Johannesburg and the Gauteng Province, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) has suggested that "the region appears to be in a new 'golden era' of transit infrastructure design and investment."

Coming perhaps at a tail end of the focus on corridor development in planning, and potentially also sharing many of its criticisms, the so-named "Corridors of Freedom" has intended to employ Johannesburg's flagship BRT initiative to create Transit Orientated Development along key corridors. One of the key potential benefits of the BRT is its ability to respond to the qualitative dimensions lacking in more broad, abstract spatial frameworks, such as supporting social dynamics, need and economic opportunities at neighbourhood level, and facilitating new and less segregated forms of identity and community. However, this potential must still be realised and ensured, for the corridor approach can lead to gentrification and transport stations can become the focus of commercial development, such as the case in Bangkok. In Johannesburg, the largely private sector-led and profit-driven Gautrain Rapid Rail Link, the ambitious sister initiative of the BRT, already shows similar trends to the Bangkok case and is almost completely disconnected from supporting opportunities at a local scale.

A recent country-wide annual telephone survey of 1,000 South Africans to gauge community confidence in transport indicated that transport was the third highest overall priority in South African society today (after education and health). Despite the fact that public transport policy has been aligned with public transport needs for almost two decades, this ranking indicates that transport is still regarded as critical and is not perceived as meeting user requirements. This points to a problem of policy implementation, and the required political commitment for this to take effect. Moreover, the responses may also be indicative of the underlying qualitative disconnect from diverse lived realities typically lacking in corridor frameworks and the imbalances of a fragmented and unequal city form generally.

There is a lot riding on Johannesburg's BRT, both politically and in terms of providing meaningful urban responses to all of these oversights. Johannesburg will probably also lead the way in which it will be taken up across the rest of the country. Participation, imagination, and experimentation with new spaces and typologies are therefore crucial. They should help to bridge the city scale focus with the local scale, as well as emphasise planning for the social and economic dimensions of the spatial alongside the provision of transport infrastructure.

Photos: (1) A Gautrain station, (2) a BRT station, (3) an inner city market and park. (Pictures by author).

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