By Takura Zhangazha*
The Ministry of Transport has announced that it intends to phase out our most ubiquitous form of public transport , the commuter omnibus (kombis) in favour of buses. The main reason it wants to do so seems to be because it has a business proposition for the acquisition of a fleet of ‘Metro buses’ by a consortium of local transport operators. The plan, if implemented, would require that either the commuter omnibus is forcibly removed from most urban transport routes or alternatively that it is allowed to compete with the new bus services.
Given the media reports on the issue, it is likely that there will be an attempt at the physical banning of kombis, particularly from specific routes. This move will however most likely falter based on the fact that public transport via kombis has become a industry (and even transport culture) in itself and employs a good number of young people who would find one way or the other of keeping their businesses running.
The major challenge with this recent major policy announcement by government is perhaps it's ‘knee-jerk’ response to symptoms of bigger underlying transport problems.
This is also not the first time that such plans to introduce buses to replace omnibuses has occurred. Over three years ago, the City of Harare was in talks with a private company to de-congest the central business district through banning kombis and introducing buses. All with the support of central government. For some still unexplained reason that policy intention was shelved, but that may have been a good thing.
The primary challenge about the intentions of central government to re-introduce buses has been that they always appear badly planned. Or at least intuitive to a fault.
While the National Transport Policy (2012-2016) emphasizes Public Private Partnerships in seeking investment in the transport sector, it appears that government is willing to have any investor come up with a proposal and play it up in the media as though that in and of itself is progress.
It is fairly evident that what is required in the public transport system in urban areas is an expansion of the transport infrastructure before one expands the number of users on it. Given the fact that government liberalised transport services provision, it’s primary task, even with an investor is to look initially at the railway networks as they link with the road and come up with a much more holistic plan for the two sectors’ development. Especially if it is concentrating specifically on urban public transportation systems. To introduce buses while banning already existing modes of public transport is not going to solve the problem of either congestion or road safety.
The Ministry of Transport would therefore need to be more circumspect in its pandering to Private Public Partnerships as it has outlined in its national transport policy. It must initially provide a holistic national transport framework that emphasizes the linkages between railway and road infrastructure in the provision of public transport. That is to say, should it require an investor for public transport infrastructural development, such said investors cannot come without a partner in one of the two, rail or road.
Furthermore, for urban public transport, the participation of local governments must be a priority in relation to not only the planning but also the shouldering of responsibility for its further development. This would entail developing local blueprints for public transport development that are endorsed and accept by local councils as well as local residents. Where possible these would integrate railway stations with road stations, buses and kombis.
Where it comes to rural and peri-urban public transportation, the same formula should apply, but with contextual circumstances also being taken into account. For example, mining towns would have greater investment from the major mining company, but the standard must remain as people centred and as integrated as elsewhere.
As it is, the proposed buses for most of the major urban centres will not bring relief to either the existent road infrastructure, nor the lack of reliability of public transport. They will, as has been the case in the past, cause friction between private transport operators, congest roads further and lead to reductions in the employment of young people.
What is more pragmatic is a holistic approach to the problem that takes into account how rail and road have always been integrated, particularly in the major towns and cities. The holistic phasing of public transport development with the development of local level road and rail infrastructure, even if appearing complex, is a better way forward. While Public Private partnerships are already part of government economic policy, it is the manner in which they are implemented that would determine their success. In the case of phasing out kombis in favour of private buses, the Ministry of Transport and its stakeholders are putting the cart before the horse.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)