Beyond Borders: Redefining Urban Mobility in South Africa

October 15th
7 mins read

Illustration by Inkee Wang

‘Beyond Borders’ is our new series of articles where we explore how the world is changing from an inclusive perspective. Whether we’re looking into new technologies or sustainable practices, ‘Beyond Borders’ showcases innovations and cultural shifts happening across the world.

Beyond Borders: Redefining Urban Mobility in South Africa

With this series, we aim to challenge perspectives on how we go about tackling global challenges and invite cultural nuance and diversity into the conversation.

First up: a 4-part story on redefining urban mobility on a local scale in South Africa, India, the US and Brazil.

Welcome to Part 1, where we talk to mobility consultant Nigel Zhuwaki about urban mobility in South Africa.

Why Redefine Urban Mobility?

“The whole transportation sector is in flux right now. We’re seeing the biggest transformation of mobility and transportation since the invention of the personal car.”

Jyod Chadha, Global Lead on New Sustainable Mobility at the World Resources Institute, may be referring to mobility innovations in India—but the sentiment she expresses applies to many parts of the world. Over the past few years, efforts to increase urban mobility have become a focal point for everyone from tech entrepreneurs to governments to automobile manufacturers, be it through self-driving cars or more widespread ride-sharing initiatives. And a recent report from Arthur D. Little identified the emergence of mobility-as-a-service as a fundamental driver behind the massive shift in how we get from point A to B in our cities. At SPACE10, we’ve also begun to explore the possibilities of urban mobility with Spaces on Wheels—a Playful Research project that challenges the traditional idea of the car and explores how we can repurpose it to create a more fulfilling life on wheels.

But, when you think about it, mobility can mean a lot of different things. It can mean transportation in your environment, sure, but it can also refer to moving up the economic ladder, or overcoming physical or social barriers that prohibit you from travelling. The point is, the definition of mobility may start with helping get people to where they need to go—but that’s not specific enough to help us understand how we need to think and act if we want to increase urban mobility successfully and on local scales. So, at SPACE10, we asked ourselves: what does increasing urban mobility look like around the world? What local issues can increased mobility solve? And how are different cultures embracing the term ‘mobility’ in their own ways?

Part 1:  South Africa’s Approach to Urban Mobility

Nigel Zhuwaki, a mobility consultant with a transport technology company in Cape Town, sees mobility in South Africa with one core purpose in mind. “Mobility is about increasing accessibility,” he says. “Accessibility to education, to health, to economic opportunities safely, reliably and affordably. These are key issues that are fundamental to a good urban transport system and the socio-economic advancement of the South African population.”

Much like in most countries, the landscape of mobility in South African urban centres is varied: motorcycle and commuter taxis are common, but also personal cars, auto-rickshaws, cycling and walking. Despite this diversity, a World Bank report in the early 1990s considered South Africa’s cities among the most inefficient in the world. The culprit is a legacy of apartheid planning—a system which ensured low-density sprawl in cities to maintain separation between the African population living on the outskirts and the white ruling minority in the centres. To this day, these characteristics of low-density sprawl, fragmentation and separation remain, perpetuating a divide between those who can afford to be mobile and those who cannot. The elite class lives in ‘developed’ areas of the city and uses cars to get across these sprawled areas; but low-income travellers – who constitute the vast majority of South Africa’s urban populations – must travel by foot, bicycle, minibus, bus, taxi or commuter train across much larger distances and congestion fuelled by what Zhuwaki describes as a ‘car-centric culture’.* In rural areas, the situation is even bleaker: people often don’t have access to regular bus or taxi services, or simply don’t have roads in decent-enough shape to enable functioning transport systems.

Some researchers describe these dynamics as mobility-related exclusion—the process that prevents people from economically, politically or socially participating in communities due to urban planning that favours higher-income populations. But over the past decade, the South African government has made efforts to resolve this disparity. It’s invested over 130 billion rand in improving public transportation in the country’s bigger cities—about twice the percentage of their GGP compared to other developing countries, and almost four times as much as many other places in the world. With that said, the solutions implemented so far are experiencing growing pains. Take the Bus Rapid Transit System, one of the key results of South Africa’s transportation initiative. Launched in 2009, it uses dedicated lanes and stations, new buses and smart payment systems, and is meant to make public transport faster and service better. Yet creating speedy transportation systems is one thing—and making them appealing is quite another.

*It’s worth noting here that this class imbalance is as blunt as it sounds: although in recent years South Africa’s middle class has been growing – especially among its black population – it’s still ‘relatively small’. 25 percent of South Africans are securely middle class or elite, while the rest are either vulnerable middle class, or transitory or chronically poor.

Cape Town’s BRT Service, MyCiTi, has a daily ridership of about 60,000, while Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya clocks in about 80,000 passenger journeys. But the number of BRT users in South Africa’s urban centres is still far lower than what was initially expected. The problem likely has to do with cost, even though subsidies are available: BRT’s ticket prices are considerably higher than most other available transportation options. After all, consider that 76 percent of South Africans live under the threat of poverty—and within this climate, 18 percent of households already spend 20 percent of their income on transportation. (Zhuwaki says that number soars to over 30 percent for lower-income households in South Africa’s urban centres.)

But a bigger issue may be what Zhuwaki identifies as a culture of mistrust towards public transportation systems. According to his writing, there was ‘no deliberate policy around public transport systems in most cities across the continent’ until very recently. That means congested cities with long travel and wait times, for starters; but also, little regulation over transportation operators—who, according to Zhuwaki, typically jam-pack buses and trains to make a profit and double or even triple transportation costs in peak hours or when it’s raining. As a result, informal modes of transport (like privately-run minibus taxis) have long been the norm for many; and for those who can afford to have a car, they’d rather choose to sit it out in traffic than have to deal with the mayhem of public transport.

Zhuwaki doesn’t think BRT is a lost cause, however. According to him, a different approach can make a big difference. “From a planning point, there is a will to integrate paratransit services with mainstream BRT,” he says. By paratransit, Zhuwaki means services which directly tap into mobility-related exclusion by providing an option for people who struggle using primary transportation options due to financial and spatial barriers. “We cannot disregard the important role that paratransit plays in moving goods and people in African cities. In this regard, technology has been playing a crucial role in developing an understanding of urban paratransit with activities such as mapping and digitising public transport information, as witnessed in cities like Cape Town with GoMetro.”

Launched in 2012, GoMetro was one of the first mobility-as-a-service initiatives in South Africa, aiming to tackle mobility barriers in the country’s metro system with tech. GoMetro generates, collects and analyses transport data across the country; these insights are leveraged into what they call a ‘flexible transportation platform.’ Meaning: you can download the app and get schedules for a variety of transportation options, plus updates about delays, fares and so on. Before GoMetro, there was no way of telling when your metro would arrive or if it would be late—a cumbersome hinderance, considering that anecdotal evidence reveals that schedule changes and delays happen ‘quite often’ with South Africa’s metro system. And if you don’t have a smartphone? You can simply call or text the platform and get updates all the same. Today, GoMetro can email your boss if your transport is delayed, or even identify the worst times for commuting in terms of risk of accident. Recently, GoMetro has even introduced an Accessibility Score tool: simply type in an address, and GoMetro will give it an accessibility score based on years of capturing data about available transportation routes and barriers.

Today, over 200,000 people in Cape Town use GoMetro.“Technology-based solutions are making it easier to collect public transport data,” elaborates Zhuwaki. “This has led to a shift in thinking on how urban mobility challenges can be solved in African cities as new data becomes available. I believe these are the first steps that are opening up new possibilities and ways of looking at the challenge of urban mobility.”

But where do self-driving cars fall into this equation? After all, research shows that for continents like Europe, North America and Asia, autonomous ride-sharing solutions could be the key to making mobility cheaper, faster and more democratic. But Zhuwaki maintains that autonomous vehicles may very well be the solution for accessibility in many countries—but not just yet in South Africa. “I generally argue that a minibus taxi, the largest transport mode for urban South Africans, is a true example of a ride-sharing service,” explains Zhuwaki. “Sure, the digital platform is absent, but otherwise much of the ingredients required for a full out ride-sharing service are already present in South Africa,” he says.

Zhuwaki has a point. Instead of solely focusing on new solutions, he argues for recognising the potential of transportation systems already in place and working on making them run smoother. “It’s about building efficiencies in this already functioning ecosystem,” he says. “That way, we can fully realise an effective ride-sharing service that is reliable, affordable and accessible for all.”

“Mobility in African cities should be viewed as a source of knowledge on ways to imagine how urban mobility can be organised anywhere in the world,” says Zhuwaki. “African cities continue to take a different trajectory to our traditional understanding of urban form. It’s the history and cultures of these cities that continue to drive them towards a unique form of urbanisation.” Zhuwaki may be talking about Africa, but practically every city – be it Shanghai, Sao Paolo or London – is defined by a fabric of history, culture and values that impacts how people move. With that in mind, how do we go about increasing urban mobility in our own backyards? Taking what we’ve learned from Zhuwaki, we need to consider accessibility across social classes, first and foremost. But, most importantly, it’s about implementing smart strategies to overcome historical and cultural mobility barriers — strategies which, slowly but surely, South Africa is embracing to transform its urban mobility landscape.

Cover illustration by Inkee Wang