Long daily commute for South Africans – “it was by design”

Submitted by: Abigail Knox, Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Pedestrians and minibus taxis in the busiest multi-modal transport hub in Durban on Market Road in Warwick Junction.

“Compare Johannesburg with other major cities of the world and it becomes glaringly obvious that we don’t have a public transport system. That is a direct legacy of apartheid. That was by design. It wasn’t just that they forgot,” observed a City of Johannesburg transport official. 

The taxi industry in South Africa was born out of the lack of a public transport system and of the need for people living in township areas to get to work.  The industry is also a response to long distances between where people live and where they work – another direct legacy of apartheid. 

Compared to Jepnee in Istanbul, Bakassi in Hong Kong and Kuala Lampur, South African minibus taxis carry fewer passengers and travel substantially longer distances. The average daily commute time for South Africans is significantly higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country average.  As a result, transport can be a significant monthly cost for South African commuters.  A caretaker who works on the Berea in Durban, for example and travels from KwaMashu spends R250 per week on transport.  Since he earns about R1000 per week, transport is effectively a 25% tax on his income.

Despite having over 70% of the market share, the taxi industry and taxi users benefit from less than 1% of national public transport subsidies – the rest is accrued to bus and train users. 

The taxi industry has grown from only 8,000 registered taxis in 1994 to 298,000 today. In Durban central business district alone, there are now over 2,960 demarcated minibus taxi bays and facilities, with 56 ranks.  Taxi operators pay local government for permits and licenses to own a taxi and to operate from demarcated ranks, holding areas and bays. Every taxi route and vehicle must also be registered with the Provincial Public Transport Licensing Board.

Although it is the most popular mode of public transport, commuters can be very frustrated with the services. It’s certainly not always convenient or safe to take taxis and it is difficult to know which taxi to take if you’re going to a new destination. Also, very few taxis operate at night and if they do, it’s not safe to wait for them on the streets.  Another concern for users is violence associated with turf wars between different associations.  This violence peaked at about the same time that the market became over-saturated. With better coordination among representative bodies, these incidents are fewer.

On the other hand, taxi ranks and all the related trading activity actually contribute to pedestrians feeling safe in these public spaces. The pedestrians interviewed as part of a project with the DUT Urban Futures Centre explained that they chose to walk along busy roads, where there are taxis, traders and people on the street. The quiet streets are dangerous.  In general, the taxi industry is concerned about the safety of their customers. A taxi driver at the Inanda Rank on ML Sultan road said, “Thieves don’t take chances here at our rank”.

The Industry is also a significant employer.  Since there are over 298,000 registered minibus taxis in South Africa it is assumed that there is a similar amount of taxi drivers, who earn between R3,200 and R8,000 per month. The taxi industry also employs about 40,000 people to wash taxis. Taxi washers earn between R20 and R25 per taxi and wash about seven to eight taxis a day.  It is estimated that the total taxi industry is worth R40 billion and directly employs about 600,000 people.

Abigail Kemper is the cofounder of TaxiMap – a social enterprise start-up providing online information on minibus taxi routes, fares and hours of operation. Visit www.taximap.co.za to find which taxi will take you to your destination.

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Abigail Knox