A decade on, Rea Vaya remains more dream than reality

Joburg’s flagship public bus system was meant to connect a divided city. Ten years later, and in the wake of a budget boost, Rea Vaya’s transformative vision remains unrealised.

At around 4.30 every afternoon, Siphelele Ngobese, 35, journeys out of Johannesburg’s past and into its uncertain future. Stepping out of the Civic Centre, the brutalist concrete monolith on Braamfontein’s eastern edge that housed the city’s apartheid-era administrations after its completion in 1972, she takes the short walk to the gleaming Rea Vaya station at Joburg Theatre.

Ngobese is lucky to find a window seat on the F11 bus she boards after a short wait. It’s usually packed by this time of the afternoon. The teeming inner city streets of Hillbrow and Yeoville pass by outside as she is ferried to her stop at the end of the line in Observatory. Depending on traffic, the R6.80 trip (it would cost R8 by taxi) takes around half an hour.

In August, the Rea Vaya will turn 10 years old. For a handful of passengers like Ngobese, it has succeeded in one of its founding objectives: providing public alternatives to private cars.

“I feel much safer on a bus than any other mode of transport, just in terms of smash-and-grabs, and things like that,” Ngobese said, talking about the Rea Vaya quickly and expertly (she is a researcher for the South African Cities Network), and given to short giggles in between soliloquies on why the bus system is so important to Joburg.

But for most Joburgers, Rea Vaya’s red and blue buses have flattered to deceive during their first decade.

The vision of connecting people living in Soweto to Johannesburg’s economic centre in Sandton by bus, initially scheduled for completion in 2016, has been beset by delays that look set to continue. The official line is that buses will be running to Sandton by April 2020. But senior officials in the transport department doubt the deadline is feasible. The procurement of buses to operate the new route, which usually takes at least a year, has not begun.

23 May 2019: Rea Vaya buses stopping to pick up passengers at the Joburg Theatre station. In August 2019, the Rea Vaya will turn 10 years old. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee
23 May 2019: Rea Vaya buses stopping to pick up passengers at the Joburg Theatre station.

A dream deferred

Rea Vaya started at breakneck speed and with an ambitious vision. Boosted by additional funding from the national transport department for investments relating to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it took under three years from the Rea Vaya’s conception in 2006 until buses were transporting passengers from Soweto into the inner city.

By putting a bus route within 500m of 85% of Joburgers, it was hoped the system would stitch together a divided city. Or in the words of Lisa Seftel, who heads the city’s transport department, bring the “rich north and the poor south” together.

And it was not only about transport. Disincentivising the use of private cars made Rea Vaya buses one of the city’s biggest ever environmental projects. Every year, the increase in the number of cars outstrips Johannesburg’s economic growth, according to the Urban Morphology and Complex Systems Institute, which has shown that transport is currently responsible for pumping in excess of 650kg of carbon per capita every year, far in excess of international best practice.

Rehana Moosajee, who was the member of Joburg’s mayoral committee responsible for transport during the first six years of Rea Vaya’s operations and now sits on the board of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, told New Frame that the system was intended to “give public transport users the opportunity to save time,” which is no mean feat in South African cities. Research by Andrew Kerr, a University of Cape Town economist, shows that black South Africans endure commutes around twice as long as those of American and European commuters.

But much of the project’s vision remains unrealised.

The initial plan to run buses for 18 and eventually 24 hours a day has waned into daily operations between 5am and 9pm. It is one of the limitations that has tempered Ngobese’s enthusiasm for Rea Vaya. Having used public transport from a young age in Durban, where she was able to catch buses until midnight, she told New Frame that Rea Vaya’s limited operations have curtailed its potential to open access to the city.

The ambition to have next-stop announcements on board the buses has also never materialised. The variable message boards at Rea Vaya stations do not work. The multiple doors built at stations to avoid passenger and bus congestion go unused. And the station at Soccer City, a large part of which required underground tunneling at immense cost, is only open now and again.

“The system was never meant to run like this,” said Moosajee.

23 May 2019: Rea Vaya buses parked off at the Selby depot in the south of Johannesburg. In August 2019, the Rea Vaya will turn 10 years old. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee
23 May 2019: Rea Vaya buses parked off at the Selby depot in the south of Johannesburg.

A city of cars

A lot of Rea Vaya’s struggles are down to Johannesburg’s continued spatial inequality. Trams and trolley-buses once made up a semblance of a public transport system in the city. But in the wake of apartheid’s forced removals, the city developed relentlessly in favour of private motor vehicles from the 1970s onwards. The result is a stubborn dependence on cars. Data from the Gauteng City Region Observatory’s most recent biennial Quality of Life survey shows that 36% of people are getting around by car.

Minibus taxis have responded best to the apartheid spatial form that cars helped to entrench. As a result, almost one in every two trips in Gauteng is still taken in a minibus, despite it being the only form of public transport that has never been subsidised by the government. But while taxis may have been Joburg’s most responsive form of transport, they cannot bear the burden of passengers that the city’s urbanisation will demand, according to Moosajee.

And despite Johannesburg’s desperate need for mass public transport, Rea Vaya’s passenger numbers remain stubbornly low. Ngobese’s trip home from the Civic Centre is among those taken by the 3% of Joburgers who catch the Rea Vaya on most days.

Making roads public

Moosajee explained that “unashamedly taking space from private cars and giving space to public transport was an important principle for spatial justice in the city” at the time the Rea Vaya was first implemented.

International experience suggests it is a principle on which the success of the buses will depend. Where similar Bus Rapid Transit systems have succeeded – Curitiba in Brazil, for example, or the gargantuan TransMilenio system in Bogota, Colombia, which now transports some 5 million passengers every day – it has been the result of political will to make infrastructural interventions that take from private motorists to give to public transport.

Seftel said the same will be true in Johannesburg. Dedicated bus lanes are imperative to the Rea Vaya’s success. Modelling by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research suggests that if there were a bus stop for every kilometre on a hypothetical route between Tembisa and Sandton, for instance, 105 buses would be required to ensure that passengers did not wait longer than three minutes. If dedicated bus lanes were built on the route, only 41 buses would be required to achieve the same efficiency.

Delays and extra costs

But implementing the infrastructure for Phase 1C of the project, which will eventually link Soweto to Sandton, has run up against complicated delays. Construction along Louis Botha on the inner city’s northern edge has been “a nightmare”, according to Seftel. Extensive existing services have made pavement upgrading both complex and laborious.

Four unbuilt stations – one near Park Station, another near Gandhi Square in the inner city, the Watt Avenue interchange near Alexandra, and a station near the Sandton Gautrain station – are pushing the start date out even further. Seftel said that construction on the stations is likely to start in July.

The city has started incurring extra costs as a result of the delays. Seftel’s department is currently installing 140 security cameras at stations along Louis Botha, for instance, to ward off vandalism while the route lies idle.

Political will in question

Insiders in the city’s transport department fear that political will remains one of Rea Vaya’s most obstinate hurdles. When he spoke for nearly two hours during his third state of the city address on 30 April, Herman Mashaba did not mention the bus system once.

Moosajee said that, considering Rea Vaya’s first phase was completed in under three years, “there is no explaining for me why it can’t happen now”. She is concerned that sections of the city administration are invested in bringing the system into disrepute. Public statements by senior politicians in the past have suggested that Rea Vaya’s reputational damage has incurred the risk of disinvestment. In 2017, for instance, Joe Maswanganyi, the minister of transport at the time, said the system would probably be scaled down as it provided “no value at the end of the day”.

On 22 May, however, public transport received something of a boost in Johannesburg’s capital expenditure budget for the upcoming year. Nearly 14% of the more than R8 billion the City has set aside for new capital investments will go to the transport department. Only the housing department and the Johannesburg Roads Agency will receive more. And at just less than R1 billion, Rea Vaya-related spending has been allocated over 80% of the transport department’s total capital budget.

Ngobese, who looks at ease in her window seat, feels safer since she started using the Rea Vaya. She has been walking more often, and spends more time “out and about”. Whether more Joburgers will enjoy the same conveniences now hangs in a balance between apparently healthy funding and a capricious political will to use it.

23 May 2019: Siphelele Ngobese riding the Rea Vaya, which she boarded at the Joburg Theatre station to her home in Observatory.

Correction, 9 March 2020: The research quoted shows that the commute of black South Africans is just less than twice the length of those in the United States of America and Europe, and not “the longest daily commutes in the world” as initially stated.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.