City BRT, neighbourhood BRT, and the "Corridors of Freedom": Image and reality in Johannesburg

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 15 October 2015

Touted as the "Corridors of Freedom" by the City of Johannesburg, the city's BRT system has the potential to improve mobility and accessibility and, with its associated Transit Orientated Development (TOD) concept of mixed-use and mixed-income development around BRT stations and BRT corridors, to even restructure the ‘apartheid city’. But several articles on the URB.im platform have already cautioned for the need to ensure that the BRT process, along with its associated pedestrian and cyclist (NMT) infrastructure, ensures appropriate redevelopment at the local level. For poorer neighbourhoods especially, the tremendous cost of the system means that it must necessarily have a transformative impact above simply providing better mobility efficiency and an image of progress vis-a-vie the taxi industry that it displaces.

Using the Diepkloof BRT Station as a case study, one recent study by researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand’s urban resilience research programme and the South African Cities Network attempted to "assess the [BRT] impact … at a neighbourhood level." Diepkloof was originally established in 1959 south of Johannesburg to accommodate black people removed from more centrally located areas.

The study revealed several alarming trends. While it confirmed that many public transport users had shifted to the BRT, mostly for reasons of time-saving vis-a-vie using taxis, this was largely where its successes ended. Several contradictions revealed the BRT process to be much more of a mixed bag of results. Two years since the BRT system was introduced in 2009, construction began on Diepkloof’s first shopping centre ("Diepkloof Square") located 750 meters away from the BRT station. Although in itself "business as usual" given South Africa’s high number of malls and shopping centres, its prioritisation of private vehicles over pedestrians, bulk mono-functionality over mixed-use and mixed-income, and insular typology over generating quality and equitable urban environments, all contradict stated BRT/TOD goals. The shopping centre, moreover, occupied the site of the former Mandelaville informal settlement, removed to a more peripheral area by the City of Johannesburg in 2002 in lieu of the development (although many now live in backyard units around Diepkloof after refusing to leave).

Such major private investment alongside but unaligned with major public investment was also linked to many other contradictory conditions. The study noted that "opportunities to access retail activities are not available or are inconvenient" and almost all BRT users interviewed were travelling toward Johannesburg rather than Soweto, indicating that employment opportunities still lie elsewhere. Moreover, where public and private investment both were unaligned with local realities they also had other ramifications. The BRT system had "severely affected the local taxi business in Diepkloof" and traders now occupied a taxi rank largely abandoned by taxis as a market, to the south of the shopping complex. However, "the mall had reduced the level of trading activity at the market" also and "many stalls had closed," and generally "trading activity seems to have decreased and traders have had to change their product offerings."

While the BRT appears to be successful in terms of efficiency, the many contradictions reveal that its imagined environments—essential to the long-term viability of the system—need to be actively promoted and protected. Private investment, densification and land development activity must be guided, local impact must be of equal importance to city scale planning (and existing communities must be included, not displaced), and critically, legal, financial, and spatial instruments need to be aligned. Alternatively, the ‘apartheid city’ will remain the rule rather than the exception, and the BRT will have been an overly extravagant bus service and little more.

Photo credits: City of Joburg, Google Earth

Photo credits: Diepkloof Square Shopping Centre, Weakley & Bickford 2015

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