At my workplace, there is a joke about the Monorail becoming the No-mo-rail. Of course, I think that the Soweto Monorail idea is not yet dead and gone; I believe that Gauteng MECs Paul Mashatile and Ignatius Jacobs – although forced to backtrack – have enough political clout to keep their dream on the rails.
But, the monorail issue brings to the fore a range of concerns and ideas about urban transport. The subject matter is fascinating – not least because transport is central to city living. Transport is in many ways, a crossroads – it is heaven or hell, it connects or separates us, limits or liberates us and closes or opens new possibilities as far as city living is concerned.
The monorail issue, for me, sparks the following reflections:
• The many bun fights about urban transport unlocks numerous contesting interests (and sometimes players are prepared to kill to get their way). One example of this is the contestation around which mode of transport should receive priority in major spending or investment in transport. Should we have bicycle lanes, dedicated bus routes or focus only on the needs of car users? Should we close some roads and replace them with pedestrian walks – and will the car users or the shop owners scream blue murder? There are also fights around subsidies: in our situation, the Putcos of the world have enjoyed subsidies while taxi drivers have had to fend for themselves. The war (competing interests) between the providers of the various transport modes created quite a din in the ears of planners, believe me.
• I am happy to wade into this war of different agendas with my own controversial view on the importance of the price of fuel. Although not a single one of my friends agree with me, I am happy to see the price of fuel edge upwards. Compared to prices in places such as the UK, our price per litre of petrol has been low. It is only when the prices rise high enough, that the almost insatiable middle class rush for cars, and the constantly growing demand for petrol-guzzling vehicles will be stemmed. My logic is simple – stifle this appetite and watch the demand for decent public transport grow. It is ironic that rich countries – where many people can afford private transport – boast better public transport systems, and more well off people voluntarily leave their cars at home while using metro rail services.
• Minibus taxi drivers are much maligned (in some quarters even hated), yet I think, much of these impressions are highly distorted or unfair. Remember, taxis are our public transport system ferrying tens of thousands – if not millions – of people to work daily. In other countries, public transporters have special lanes and are valued because they carry more people per vehicle in a situation where we want to keep the use of cars and carbon emissions down. But our taxi warriors –battling against heavy peak hour traffic - don’t have special lanes. Taxi drivers don’t have “bus stops” or places akin to the pit stop where they can pull out of the bustle of traffic and calmly offload passengers. So – always inventive and creative like the proverbial "boer" making a plan - they often use the edges, shoulders and ‘right turning-only’ lanes to get forward. They also load passengers on corners or while idling in a busy lane. Thus, they give us hassles. Being patient, many a car driver has learnt to take this in their stride. It also makes me more tolerant knowing that many taxi drivers give way – when they don’t have to – to vehicles to cross busy intersections, or get a chance to enter a busy road jampacked with peak-hour traffic. Often they are more polite and generous on the road than many a macho fiend behind the steering wheel of a BMW or a Merc. I must admit, however, that despite my positive mood toward taxi drivers – I am still infuriated when a taxi daredevil - who is otherwise in some helluva rush in the fast lane - crosses 4 lanes to pick up a lone passenger at the roadside.
• Why is traffic planning and management such a House of Babel? In any city, you have numerous competing authorities – all doing their own thing. In any major South African city, there are private bus providers (Putco, Golden Arrow, etc.), Metrorail, Spoornet, the Commuter Rail Association, the municipal bus service, taxis as well as the Department of Transport. They each operate their own system. Each (usually) plans separately based on its own understanding of how the city will function, grow and change in the future. In the middle of this is the consumer. Oh for an integrated system that responds to need and allows the citizen to move painlessly across the city! Oh for an integrated payment system that would allow one the option of using different modes of transport while using the same trip, day or monthly ticket!
Into such a complicated and wondrous scenario comes the Monorail idea. The monorail raises many questions. Given my studies in urban planning, I have heard much about the benefits of this mode of transport. With coaches that hug concrete beams, monorails emit low noise, are environmentally friendly (use electricity), are incredibly safe and rise above the immense densities of roads and buildings that cities have become.
But just how far can the monorail go and how many people can it carry? I have never come across them being used for mass transport over long distances. One entry on the Internet, probably out of date by now, notes (see Wikipedia) that the longest monorail in the world is the Osaka monorail that is a mere 28km long. In other words, monorails are used as “fillers” in the transport system, providing vital connections in congested areas and – together with other feeder systems – ferry commuters to the pick-up points of the major mass transporters on the transport grid. But I accept that - with the help of Jacobs and Mashatile - we may be breaking new ground and I may yet be convinced about the larger carrying capacity of the monorail and (if we are talking about mass use) the possibility of reasonable to low commuter fares.
Doubts aside, I like the idea of bold public sector projects around transport. I think such projects, taken collectively, may be the decisive ingredients in the magic formula we need to take our cities into the future. Against the tide of urban problems and in the face of bewildering complexity, bold projects denote action and vision rather than paralysis, absence of leadership or surrender.