Cape Town’s IRT initiative is based on flawed thinking that needs to be corrected before the city is saddled with an untenable system for the next 12 years

AS sole operator of scheduled commuter bus services in Cape Town, we are one of the affected parties in the implementation of BRT and have been involved in the process discussions, with the city, over the past 12 months.

Our opinion is based on the Cape Town business model for BRT.  In Cape Town, by the way BRT is called IRT or Integrated Rapid Transit.

I will start off with the system that is planned for Cape Town, then look at some high level concerns, which go wider than just Cape Town. Finally I will look at the practical issues of what lies await for operators as contained in the prospectus document issued by the city of Cape Town.

To illustrate some of our concerns I will have to compare our planned BRT to what is implemented in South American cities.

Let me then start off by sharing what was planned for Cape Town in terms of BRT. The city’s plan refers to four phases which would be implemented over 12 years, with the first phase to be ready for the Soccer World Cup tournament. This first phase originally consisted of a 156 seat vehicle being deployed on various routes:

• An airport shuttle to the CBD

• Inner city feeder and distribution network

• Trunk service from Atlantis through Table View to City

• Trunk and feeder service to Du Noon

• Century city service

By F. E. Meyer, Golden Arrow Bus Services This was to be implemented at a cost of R1.3 billion and, as I said, was supposed to be implemented before the World Cup tournament.

The original cost of R1.3 bn. as estimated in 2008, has now escalated to R4.6 bn, which is why the first phase has been scaled down and implementation moved forward. Phase One has been reduced to Phase One A, which excludes the Century City service, and more recently it was decided to delay the Atlantis and Du Noon Services implementation.

Construction of reinforced bus ways and stations is well underway. Of the 156 buses, 43 have been ordered from Volvo to do duty for Word Cup and consist of eight articulated 18 m buses and 35  12 m buses.



The first and probably most important issue we have with BRT is that the concept was sold to government on a false but convenient promise. The promise was that BRT would not need any operating subsidies. We say this is not possible and it will require more subsidy than current services require.

In the recent past, government has mainly held a negative view on the current bus subsidy system, and in most discussions it becomes evident they believe they are not getting good value for money.

When they therefore heard that such a good system as BRT does not require subsidy, it was obviously an answer to their prayers. In itself it was enough for treasury to buy into the concept. They could just see how much money they were going to save in terms of subsidy.

The problem with this is that politicians believe it, and made huge decisions based on it. Many officials we have dealt with firmly believe that BRT will not need one cent operational subsidy.

What government officials did not realise at the time is that BRT is a very expensive system. It might be cheap compared to rail, but is vastly more cost intensive than a normal bus service. With such an expensive service, there are only two options to get the books to balance: either passengers pay the full economic fare or government must subsidise the system. The concept of BRT not needing operational subsidies obviously comes from the South American cities, where it is widely publicised that the BRT systems don’t need any subsidy to function.

This, however, is not true. It is only the cost of the actual operation of buses and ticket systems that is covered by passenger fares. The system in terms of its infrastructure is highly subsidised, with even the private motorist contributing in the form of a fuel tax. Costs that are normally associated with the operations, such as depot costs and security costs, are all treated as infrastructure costs and therefore, according to our view, subsidised.

In South America they achieve efficiency by throwing resources at the system. To achieve high service levels, people are appointed to watch over and micro manage the system. In all three cities we visited, approximately five people per bus were employed within the total system. This is almost double compared to a typical bus company in SA. One must understand that labour costs money and drives up the operating costs.

Without subsidy to support the extensive infrastructure and labour component, the system would certainly deteriorate rapidly and would not be sustainable in the long run. That’s on the cost side. On the income side, our local demographic and geographical factors, which will impact on the service, are very different from that of South America.

Our passengers are predominantly poor and cannot afford to pay the full economic fare. Our city does not have the passenger volumes to sustain the system. We suffer from urban sprawl and passengers travel in excess of 20 km to get to their place of employment. Compare this to Bogota, where the average passenger journey is 7 km. To quote Rollo Dickson in a recent article, ‘in Bogota, the population density is 13 times that of Cape Town”. (I’ve included this extract from an article by Dickson in Truck & Bus to illustrate the perceptions in the industry regarding Cape Town and BRT implementation.) In addition, urban sprawl impacts negatively on bus running times, which leads to lower asset utilisation and increased operational costs.

Further to this, typical buses in BRT have limited seats and passengers are therefore required to stand most of the time. Will passengers be prepared to stand all the way on the 50 km journey from Atlantis to Cape Town?

So, on the one side you have the high costs and then on the income side you have fewer passengers, therefore less income. That’s why we are saying that it in fact will need more subsidy than current services being offered by commuter bus companies.


Do we have the political will in SA to make unpopular decisions and micro manage BRT systems?

The magic of BRT lies in the completeness of the system.

The system garners efficiency from the fact that all other subsystems in the city support the system.p> In South America, different departments within a city worked closely together to support public transport. Proper spatial planning ensures that development takes place along transport corridors in multi storey buildings. This limits urban sprawl and ensures population density.

In SA, to discourage private car usage, the authorities need to create and enforce laws as they have done in South America. Over there they have done it through number plate restrictions and car free days, charging private cars a fuel tax and decreased parking space in city centres and along roadways. In Curitiba the authorities even forced employers, through legislation, to reimburse employees for up to 95% of public transport costs.

Further to this, traffic management systems are programmed to give priority to buses in the system, which causes further delays for private car users.

Many of these initiatives were perceived as extremely negative by the city’s residents. Strong political will, however, ensured that pro-transport initiatives were implemented for the good of the city as a whole, and they were not intimidated by other role players.

Are we prepared to go to these lengths to make the systems work? Do we have the political will in our respective cities to implement such supporting measures?


The next point of concern is the creation of a transport authority and again I have to draw a parallel to BRT in South America.

What was evident over there is that every city has an active transport authority with emphasis on ‘authority’. Their main role is the execution of transport plans. In addition, they are in control of the daily operations and are busy planning for future changes to improve the system. They all displayed a single minded approach to achieving their goals and objectives.

These transport authorities were central in the forming of the BRT concept, including the negotiations with existing operators and the awarding of contracts to ticket sales operators. Within these entities, commuter mobility is the prime focus. In all cities there was a central theme of making the system affordable, accessible and safe for the commuter. Every single facet of a BRT operation is therefore squeezed for maximum efficiency for the user. From quick boarding through multiple doors to bus priority signalling, the transport authority is actively seeking improvements on an ongoing basis.

In South African cities, however, there seems to be no understanding of how important a role transport authorities play, and we just don’t seem to be able to get it off the ground.

Maybe it is because there is so much debate between provinces and cities as to who is going to have control over transport authorities and who is going to finance them, that we can’t make any progress.

In Cape Town, the original decision was to create a municipal entity as opposed to a transport authority, to manage and administer BRT. It does not matter what you call it, as long as it carries out the very important functions of a transport authority.

However, as in South America, the transport authority should have been formed before the BRT concept discussions started. This has still not happened and we were disappointed to hear, towards the end of last year, that the city has decided not to create a municipal entity for an undefined period, and will just appoint certain officials to the responsibility of running BRT. This must surely be seen as a recipe for disaster. There is just no way that BRT can be managed successfully, schedules updated on a daily basis, operators paid, penalties evaluated without a proper dedicated authority. We believe that it is just an attempt to save money.


Then we get to law enforcement. From operations viewed in different South American cities, an important strategy that became clear was that law enforcement is part and parcel to a world class BRT system. This was best illustrated in Bogota. Along the 80 km BRT route, boarding points are placed approximately 500 m apart. Every such point had a strong security presence. This assists the authorities to minimise abuse to the system such as vandalism and boarding without a ticket.

Technology is also extensively utilised to assist the authorities. In most operations closed circuit television is monitored by a control centre which is able to dispatch patrols, should it be necessary.

Are we prepared to enforce the law to protect the passenger and the operator within the BRT system? In Cape Town we cannot even keep the bus lane between the airport and the city clear of private cars. Thousands of rands have been spent on a very sophisticated camera system, which is obviously not doing what it is supposed to do.

We are therefore concerned that law enforcement of BRT is underestimated and believe that there are two risks involved.

1. The risk of losing revenue on the system through robberies of strategic ticket selling points, and

2. Risk of private cars and other operators driving in BRT lanes and in competition with BRT operators, who had to give up their routes.

As many decision makers said to us that it would not be possible for private cars or pirate taxi operators to operate in the exclusive BRT lanes (as there will be a kerb to prevent them from entering), I paid Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya a visit some weeks ago and took a couple of photos of private cars in the bus lane. You will not see this in a South American system. Law enforcement and the total safety of the system are essential for the success of BRT.

We believe the cities where BRT is to be implemented need to clarify the importance of law enforcement and their stance against unlicensed pirate operators, operating services in competition with licensed operators, within the system.

The prospectus issued by the city of Cape Town is silent on the city providing the necessary protection through law enforcement.


The final point I want to make on the broader issues is our concern regarding job losses. Although I mentioned earlier that BRT is expensive and that one of the reasons is that it is extremely labour intensive, we are concerned about job losses in the shift from current operations to BRT. This concern is shared by the taxi industry in Cape Town. The city of Cape Town has made a broad promise that all currently employed in the industry will have jobs in the new BRT system. We are asking, has anybody calculated the numbers to determine if this promise is possible?

To give you an idea, bus companies operate at plus minus 2.6 employees per peak bus. If we reduce 100 buses due to BRT implementation in Phase One A in Cape Town, we have 260 Golden Arrow employees that need to be accommodated within the system.

In addition, if 600 taxi permits are cancelled in Phase One {figures obtained from the city), and each taxi only consists of only a driver, we therefore ignore the fact that some taxis operate with a second driver, has an owner and a gaatjie. A further 600 people will need jobs.

We therefore need to accommodate 860 employees within this BRT system’s Phase One A.

We know that the first phase will consist of 156 vehicles. This indicates a ratio of almost six people being employed per bus. This is higher than anywhere in South America and, if that is the case, we can easily predict that costs will run away with BRT. Or somebody will realise the mistake and find that people do lose their jobs.

This is of major importance in terms of the heads of agreement and not a problem that can be fixed once companies have signed agreements committing them to the process. We are quite surprised that labour has not picked up on this. We think it is time that we stop making promises if we do not have the answers.


The City of Cape Town issued two prospectus documents during the past year on which the involved operators had to comment. This prospectus broadly contains the business model for BRT in Cape Town.

The most important factor regarding the content of this prospectus is that if we agree to the business model in the prospectus, we will sit with the consequences for at least the next 12 years. It is therefore vital that we get it right the first time around.

Here are what we see as the most important issues:

• Legal matters

Firstly there are the legal matters which must be dealt with. We believe that due process has not been followed in terms of current legislation. We have yet to see an approved and gazetted transport plan.

Then, the contracting process does not refer to or reflect the city’s position in terms of existing binding agreements in the transport industry. Golden Arrow’s Interim Contract and the Tripartheid agreement (heads of agreement) are not mentioned. Certain rights are vested in these agreements, which cannot be ignored.

Secondly, the prospectus in its totality discriminates against buses, and the taxi operators are receiving preferential treatment in every situation.

We understand that they must be assisted to become part of the formal sector, but in Cape Town we believe that they have gone too far. We ask why are small black empowered bus operators not given the same opportunities?

To give you an example: taxi operators will receive a scrapping allowance for taking their vehicles off the road. A black empowered bus company such as Sibanye. which operates in the area where the first phase BRT will be implemented, is expected to just park their reasonably new MAN buses, with no compensation. It is taken for granted that they will be able to sell their buses, second hand, in a market where subsidies have just been reduced.

We object. Bus operators should also receive a scrapping allowance for redundant vehicles. The economic climate as well as other BRT projects in other cities could result in over supply of buses. There is therefore no guarantee that there would be a second hand market for buses in this or future BRT implementation phases.

Then there is preferential employment. The prospectus states that taxi drivers will receive preferential employment in BRT. Why? And what about the heads of agreement? Lastly, in terms of discrimination – taxi operators will have the first option to buy the shares of other taxi associations and operators who wish to leave the system.

Why discriminate against the bus companies? The other  taxi associations have no more of a right to the available shares than the bus company. The bus companies, including black empowered bus companies, should therefore have the same opportunity to buy other taxi associations shares.


It is generally accepted that within a BRT system the operators will not be responsible for fare collection and fare evasion as there will be a separate contract to manage fares. In the prospectus, however, it states that on certain routes the operator will be responsible for fare evasion. The buses, however, are configured in such a way that the door and ticket machine are far away from the driver.

We object. Drivers cannot be held responsible. Feeder vehicles with more than one door are problematic if the driver is responsible for fare collection. This function should be performed by the fare system company.


The prospectus states that the operating company should pay “government prescribed” labour rates. This is problematic and we say it should be “as per SARPBAC agreement”. If not, operators will pay minimum BCE wages that will lead to companies struggling to retain the services of their drivers, as they will continuously move to higher paying companies.


In the Cape Town business model the vehicles will be given to the operators at the end of the contract. We say this has no logic, as the vehicles are then worthless. Not only can the vehicles only be used within a BRT system (because of the high floor, high entry design), but they would also have reached the end of their economic life.

The city should let the operators buy the vehicles at the start of the contract and include a guaranteed buy-back clause at the end of the contract.


Finally, the prospectus states that: “No person holding interest in one operating company can also hold interest in the other operating company”

We object. Our company currently operates services in all areas of Cape Town. It is therefore possible, in later phases of BRT implementation, where there could be many operating companies in a phase, where Golden Arrow could be involved in more than one of these companies. There is no legal support for this decision.

In conclusion:

• We say government should note and acknowledge that BRT will cost more in operating subsidies, compared to what current services are costing.

• We hope that the authorities understand the important role that a transport authority plays, the level of political will and the law enforcement needed to make a success of BRT.

• Then, go and do the number crunching, and if it is true that there will be job losses, admit it.

• In terms of the prospectus, we will continue to engage with the city officials to find common ground and solutions which suit both parties.

To finish off, I hope we have predicted the future wrong, but as far back as January 2008, we expressed our concern to the city regarding the high cost of BRT and the effect it could have on future implementation.

Source: SABOA  FE Meyer, Golden Arrow Bus Services