Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Harare City Council 'Bus Plan' needs re-think

Harare City Council 'Bus Plan' needs re-think

 By Takura Zhangazha*

The Harare City Council (HCC), according to recent media reports, intends to expand the city's public transport services by introducing a fleet of 500 buses in partnership with a private company. On the face of it, it is a development that must be welcomed given the fact that the city's public transport system as it exists today remains characterized by 'stop gap' planning and without the necessary 'best practice' service and safety standards. The contemporary main players that are likely to be affected by this policy intention of HCC are private commuter omnibus operators who have  been the main providers of urban public service transport  in the city since the liberalization of urban transport services. How these stakeholders will respond to this potential competition is probably something that they can better argue via their relevant associations.

What is however  important about this particular policy intention and tender pronouncement by the city is how it came to be deemed either a solution or a necessary measure to take in the best interests of Harare residents and commuters. I am sure there are tender award protocols and accountability mechanisms that are currently being utilized in order to ascertain which of the five reported companies will win the award to provide the buses that council has deemed necessary to ease the traffic and congestion on the city's roads.

The more important point however is whether the plan is a holistic plan or, as with previous ones, is more to address symptoms without achieving the intended effect which would be a lasting cure for our transport ills.  A departure point in seeking to analyze this new policy initiative of council is to measure the reasons why HCC has not considered the railway network or linkages with the National Railways of Zimbabwe in its plan. If the council has indeed considered the urban railway network as an option then they must give a public explanation as to why it is no longer deemed part of the solution to our public transport challenges.

In its explanations, it would also be wise for HCC to consider  a number of issues that will emerge when it goes ahead with this plan in its reported form. The first issue being that given the general traffic congestion  particularly during our peak hours,  the additional 500 buses are not going to resolve the problem of time spent by commuters on the road to and from work.  A combination of the intended buses, smaller commuter omnibuses, private vehicles is a recipe for more congestion and not relief. 

When also considered with the fact that our roads are already strained since very few of them are either dualised  or fully upgraded to efficiently accommodate current levels of traffic, let alone an additional number of buses,  the HCC will then have to make  some controversial choices. These would possibly include either introducing  an extra charge ( e.g London's congestion charge)  to either private or smaller vehicles as a deterrent for them to come into the CBD. The other alternative will be to actively encourage commuters to  use council sanctioned buses while at the same time competing with the small commuter omnibuses in the CBD. Again, HCC will face tough challenges with proving their buses to be better and more efficient than the smaller commuter omnibuses that are currently the main mode of transport for many residents. This process will inevitably lead to clashes and differences between the city authorities and those that are currently in the public transport business wherein the latter will accuse the former of unfair protection of  the new bus company's operations.

Where the council undertakes a 'big picture' approach to the public transport challenges in Harare, they would have to consider including the railway network in their plans and thereby reduce the number of buses they intend to introduce. The national railway network, even though it has been described as technologically outdated and underfunded, provides an alternative solution that has been under-explored in relation to urban public transport in Zimbabwe. While it has been tried in controversial circumstances before (early-to mid 2000s) it was never further developed. The city council would do well to take an approach that links up more conveniently and efficiently the railway line network that circumnavigates the capital and lies adjacent to major residential areas to the west and east of Harare. The buses that would then be introduced would cover primarily shorter distances and possibly provide services that link up parts of the CBD or newly constructed railway stations in residential areas that the railway line passes through. This would invariably be a cheaper and more efficient  option for the commuters as it would mean less congestion on the roads, less accidents, less consumption of fuel as well as less environmental damage in the city.

While the leaders of the city may perceive this to be more expensive and more long term as an alternative to their 'bus plan', it is an alternative that will strengthen the full utilization of available infrastructure as well as enable an integrated public transport system for the city. It would therefore be imperative that the council undertakes a much more complete cost benefit analysis of its intended introduction of 500 buses onto the capitals strained transport system.

*Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity: takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com