Streamlining South Africa’s Transport Using Big Data

A National Planning Commission (South Africa) report published in 2011 has some very insightful nuggets for someone interested in learning more about the country’s public transport.

The report observes that South African public transport requires urgent upgrades primarily because the system is skewed against the poorest members of the community who need it to travel to work and other activities every day.

Some of the major public transport challenges include; insufficient services, lack of proper or enough facilities such as bus stops, and infrequent services especially during off-peak hours which is an inconvenience to most commuters.

Commuters at Bara Taxi Rank in Soweto, South Africa. {Image Source: News24}
Commuters at Bara Taxi Rank in Soweto, South Africa. {Image Source: News24}

Elsewhere, a full-length research paper dubbed Public Transport Service Quality in South Africa: A Case Study of Bus and Mini Bus Services in Johannesburg authored by Krishna K. Govender also draws an equally interesting conclusion.

“It is safe to state that South African commuters are clearly unhappy with public transport service quality which implies that public passenger transport service organisations must conduct perception studies on an ongoing basis in order to enable them to meet the needs of passengers.”

Another report titled: An analysis of the quality of public transport in Johannesburg, South Africa using an adapted SERV.QUAL model authored by Rose Luke & Gert J Heyns of the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management observes that it is widely accepted public transport in Johannesburg is of low quality.

“Johannesburg is a typical example of a city with few government-funded public transportation services with relatively low levels of mobility and accessibility.”

According to the report, the South African government is on record stating that it is keen on improving this sector and facilitating a large-scale modal shift of the country’s public transport to environmentally-friendly mobility.

Public Service Vehicles (PSVs) in South Africa releasing emissions into the air causing pollution. {Image Source: Property 360}
Public Service Vehicles (PSVs) in South Africa releasing emissions into the air causing pollution. {Image Source: Property 360}

Similar sentiments are observed in a media report under the headline: Public Transport Inequality published by South African publication Mail & Guardian in June 2019.

The report observes that South African public transport is subsidized in such a manner that benefits urban metro commuters and the middle class while the working class and the class of citizens who travel to peri-urban areas are largely left out.  

South African Public Transport and the Apartheid

Borgen Magazine, a publication owned by a non-profit headquartered in Seattle, United States, partly attributes the current inefficiencies of South African transport to Apartheid.

How is this so?

An article published by the magazine titled: Lack of Reliable Public Transportation in South Africa observes that the country’s public transportation problems date back to the apartheid era in the 1990s.

The piece notes that the apartheid left behind a legacy of racial and social exclusion. This culture, the report notes has had a massive negative impact on the country’s socio-economic development.

A South African walking in Johannesburg.  The effects of the apartheid era are still being felt in South African public transport to date. {Image Source: SaferSpaces}
A South African walking in Johannesburg. The effects of the apartheid era are still being felt in South African public transport to date. {Image Source: SaferSpaces}

Consequently, setting up inclusive forms of public transport for all South African citizens has been the country’s Achilles heel.

The apartheid-era policies were based on racial segregation which culminated in a skewed urban geographic layout which makes it hard for different means of transport such as cars, trains, and buses to access certain parts of the country.

The ripple effects from that era are still being felt up to this date and the inequality is visible in the most popular modes of transportation in the country which include; minibus taxis, buses, trains, and regular taxis.

Minibus Taxis

Minibus taxis are the most common means of transport in South Africa. They are more common than trains largely because there is a wide network of them operating in different parts of the country.

They operate at high frequency meaning that they are the most affordable means of transport. Most fares are under R20 ($1.33).

Minibus taxis are 14-16 seater vans and are the most common means of transport in South Africa. {Image Source: African Development Bank}
Minibus taxis are 14-16 seater vans and are the most common means of transport in South Africa. {Image Source: African Development Bank}

They are also the most reliable as far as availability is concerned.

The minibus taxis in South Africa instantly remind one of the matatus in Kenya, also the most predominant form of transport in Nairobi, the East African nation’s capital.

Commuters can whistle down touts and drivers at designated and non-designated points in towns and cities because of near non-existent regulation.

The lax regulation also means that some drivers operate without proper driving licenses. That also means that driving minibus taxis can be chaotic at times. Drivers have a habit to overlap other vehicles on the road with the intention of beating traffic or purely for bravado.

What’s more, this lack of regulation also means that there are no fixed prices for minibus taxis which leaves commuters prone to impromptu changes especially when it rains or when the demand is high.

Corrupt police officers also exploit this loophole to harass touts and drivers demanding bribes and threaten to ground the PSVs at police stations if the operators don’t pay their “dues”.

Is there any way this sector that so many South Africans depend on but also so disorganized can be improved?

GoMetro, a company founded by Cape Town-based public transport expert Justin Coetzee is already tapping Big Data to help authorities monitor informal public transport in South Africa as reported by CNN.

The company mapped the transport network in Cape Town and evaluated every route in the city, tracking factors such as the number of stops, route distance, and activity when passengers board and alight.

“There’s an enormous amount of inefficiencies as to how these routes have sprung up. Our data is able to consolidate them into a much more rational plan for the entire city to work better.”

Coetzee told CNN.

Bus Transport

There are multiple companies that provide bus services across South African cities.

Every municipality has licensed its own bus companies that serve commuters.

Bus operating on South African road. {Image Source: MAN}
Bus operating on South African road. {Image Source: MAN}

There are also bus companies that provide private bus services.

Some of the bus companies that provide public transport services include:

CityBus Company (ies)
BloemfoeinteinInterstate Bus Lines
Cape TownMyCiTi, Golden Arrow Bus Services
DurbanDurban People Mover, Mynah, and Aqualine.

Bus companies in Durban have adopted a unified use of a smartcard called Muvo that allows commuters to pay for bus services to the various providers across the city.
George MunicipalityGo George
JohannesburgRea Vaya, Metrobus
Port ElizabethAlgoa bus
PretoriaTshwane Bus Services, PUTCO, A Re Yeng

Long Distance Coaches

Long-distance coaches have found their niche in South Africa mainly because there are a limited number of train routes in South Africa making long-distance coaches the best option for crisscrossing the country.

Long-distance coaches also suffice when a commuter wants to travel to a smaller municipality.

Some of the popular long-distance coach companies in South Africa include; TransLux, Citybug, and City to City.

An Intercity long-distance coach. {Image Source: IOL}
An Intercity long-distance coach. {Image Source: IOL}

How is South Africa finding solutions to its own bus transport challenges?

The answer to that question is Big Data.

A South African company called WhereIsMyTransport as reported by The Guardian in October 2016 has developed a solution that provides formal transport data for South African cities like Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Tshwane.

“The platform contains a multi-modal journey planner and fare estimator that allows users to plan the speediest and most cost-efficient journey to work, meaning app developers and service providers have all they need to roll out effective transport solutions.”

The Guardian report

Trains

South Africa boasts of wide coverage of railway tracks (23,193 kilometres) that ferry some 530 million passengers annually. South Africa’s network is the busiest and largest in Africa.

South African train en route albeit with illegal passengers hanging on the sides of the carriage. {Image Source: AfricaNews}
South African train en route albeit with illegal passengers hanging on the sides of the carriage. {Image Source: AfricaNews}

All passenger rail services in South Africa are operated and owned by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). The agency has three divisions that carry out different functions.

DivisionService
Premier ClasseAn affordable luxury train that runs between Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg
MetrorailCommuter rail services
Shosholoza MeylIntercity services connecting every province in South Africa

PRASA also runs and owns train stations in the country via its property management subsidiary, PRASA Cres.

Long-Distance Trains

As mentioned above, Shosholoza Meyl is the division responsible for long-distance intercity services. Most routes diverge from Johannesburg. The major destinations include Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, East London, Musina, and Komatipoort.

A Shosholoza Meyl train. The brand offers long-distance travel. {Image Source: SA-Venues.com}
A Shosholoza Meyl train. The brand offers long-distance travel. {Image Source: SA-Venues.com}

Has South African rail transport embraced Big Data?

Yes.

According to a report dubbed: Data Collection Survey on Railway Sector in the Republic of South Africa published by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, South Africa is using Big Data to monitor its rolling stock systems and infrastructure.

Taxi Transport

Although taxi-hailing apps disrupted traditional taxi services in South Africa beginning in 2009, traditional taxi services are still operational.

Majority of the taxi drivers who own their own cars moonlight between working for taxi-hailing apps and getting direct clients.

Commuters can hail taxis via apps, if not, they can board one at taxi stands which are mostly found in Central Business Districts (CBDs), next to hotels, shopping malls, and hubs.

Some traditional taxis use meters as a means to earn the trust of passengers, this gives commuters the confidence that prices will be fair.

Taxi-hailing apps with a presence in South Africa include Bolt, Uber, inDriver, Orange Cabs, Taxi Live Africa, and Yookoo Ride.

Bolt taxi. Hailing apps disrupted the traditional taxi business in Africa beginning in 2009. {Image Source: Digital Times Africa}
Bolt taxi. Hailing apps disrupted the traditional taxi business in Africa beginning in 2009. {Image Source: Digital Times Africa}

One of the ways experts have suggested Big Data can be used in South African taxi transport is captured in an article published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) titled: How Technology is Upgrading Traditional Mobility Services in Africa.

The article authored by TayloRail Business Development Manager David Taylor observes one of the ways Big Data can be used in this sector is through ride-sharing when a passenger hails an app. This reduces congestion and air pollution.

“One such solution is ViaVan, a partnership between an American mobility-as-a-service (MAAS) company, Via, and Mercedes Benz Vans, which uses a proprietary algorithm to aggregate demand on particular routes, promoting densification of passengers who require a vaguely similar origin/destination trip to share a vehicle. They do this by taking the riders’ needs into account, creating a virtual bus stop or pick-up point, and pooling their riders to achieve efficiencies not yet seen in our major tech-driven mobility start-ups.”

World Economic Forum (WEF) Report

No Longer a Prospect

Twenty years ago, Big Data was still a relatively new frontier whose potential was there for all to see.

That’s not the case anymore, Big Data has been tried and tested and proven to be an effective method to solve transport challenges.

Take the last example we have seen in this piece for instance — identifying commuters who hail taxis roughly at the same time and pooling them in one ride as an innovative way to cut down on air pollution.

Big Data also promises a lot more like helping South African minibus taxis navigate the best routes to help passengers get to their destinations on time.

The evidence certainly shows that Big Data will be a necessity for public transport authorities over the next years.

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