Economic growth is closely linked with the distances we are able to travel. Whilst daily traffic congestion has become the favoured topic of complaint amongst Capetonians, the damage being done by an inefficient transport ecosystem goes far beyond the inconvenience of frustrated motorists. A clear correlation exists between the quantity and quality of transport infrastructure and levels of economic development – efficient transport systems and the mobility it confers are directly linked to levels of output, employment and income within the national economy.
There can, therefore, be little growth in employment opportunities whilst most of our citizens struggle to access economic opportunities that are centralised in CBD’s and other economic hubs, far removed from marginalised communities. This fact was not lost on the architects of Apartheid spatial planning who intentionally placed black and coloured communities as far away from economic opportunities as possible, whilst ensuring a dearth of suitable public transport infrastructure. This effectively caused unemployment to be built into the spatial planning architecture, a situation that persists to this day.
Earlier this year, the Central Line – a critical commuter rail service relied on by thousands of workers, was shut down for months. During this time busses went on strike and taxis were at war, resulting in significant loss of productivity as employees simply could not get to their places of work. This is not sustainable and unless government and industry urgently start working together to resolve this public transportation crisis, inclusive economic growth and job creation will remain an elusive dream.
There have been numerous collaborative attempts to improve Cape Town’s transport crisis in the short-term; including everything from carpooling and corporate shuttles, to non-motorised transport solutions such as bicycle lanes. These solutions have started chipping away at the problem, however remain short-term interventions and will not shift the needle over the long-term as they remain largely inaccessible or impractical for the majority of commuters. We urgently need to address the critical shortage of suitable mass transportation systems such as rail.
Adding to the transportation crisis was the announcement of SA’s largest fuel price hike in history during October. Excluding months where fuel taxes were hiked, this is the largest single fuel price increase SA has ever had to endure. The Automobile Association (AA) estimates that this increase will extract a further R2.5bn from the SA economy, casting further doubt on the prospect of a much-needed economic revival. The cost of doing business will go up and consumer disposable income will diminish, further stagnating our ailing economy.
Many will argue that we are subject to global events such as the rapidly rising oil price pushing up fuel prices, however we should not discount the importance of key policy decisions and the resultant impact on the value of our currency. The depreciation of the rand has massively exacerbated the impact of rising oil prices and global trade wars. The reverse would however also most likely hold true, in that positive policy decisions that provide clarity and certainty with respect to issues such as expropriation of property without compensation, or firm political will to deal decisively with issues such as state capture, would assist in strengthening our currency and alleviating the extent of further oil price shocks for motorists.
Cape Town will always be constrained geographically when it comes to building new road infrastructure as our city centre is wedged between the mountain and ocean, and most of our major highways converge on the Foreshore, resulting in significant daily bottlenecks. Improvements to our roadways in other parts of the city simply result in motorists getting to the bottleneck sooner, thereby extending the daily congestion further and further down the road. Interestingly, recent research has shown that nearly 80% of motorists arrive to the CBD in single-occupancy vehicles. Increasing levels of vehicle occupancy, through initiatives like carpooling and shuttle services, will have a significant downward impact on the number of vehicles clogging up our roads, but with Cape Town being the fastest growing city in SA, this will provide temporary reprieve at best.
The solution is a clean, safe and efficient commuter rail system. This will only be possible through unprecedented collaboration between the public and private sectors. We need innovative thinking, new models of public infrastructure development, and unwavering political will to see this done.