Transport in Cape Town: Intermodality= Access? Learning from the informal taxi system

Today’s blog post is a sequel to last week’s coproduced film on Intermodality in Cape Town. A day that involved four City Planning Students going on a journey through Cape Town using only public transport. The journey will serve as a case study and personal anecdote that speaks to, and strengthens a molding of understanding transport systems in Cape Town. Essentially this post will speak on Intermodality and it’s relationship to access. The UN Document on Planning and Design for Sustainable Urban Mobility puts it perfectly in that “Modal integration is also an essential prerequisite for urban accessibility”. Europe and Global North Cities have shown the effectiveness of Intermodality, but in Global South cities where informal transport systems flourish, and there is a distinct different way of knowing; how do we begin to debunk and rethink intermodality in the formal and informal transport system interface in our particular context?

The journey around Cape Town was a UCT Honours project that sought to give students an understanding of how the transport system in Cape Town worked from an experiential point of view, and from this begin to start a conversation around degrees of efficiency, both in the formal and informal transport systems. A week before the project, I sat in a talk by Director of Centre for Transport Studies at UCT, Roger Behrens, who spoke on various modes of transport and the pragmatics of infrastructure that come along with that, in extensive detail. It is important to give definition to what kinds of transport systems are in Cape Town for this blog to be an effective means of conversation. Transport systems can be formal and informal, as well as public and private.

The formal public transport system in Cape Town is comprised of the metro rail, the bus system, and the BRT (bus-based road transport). The full Golden Arrow buses we often see on congested roads are an example of the bus system. The unreliably late, unmaintained train is an example of the metro rail system. And then the often empty, rather unaffordable yet very comfortable MyCiti buses roaming around on their designated routes are a good example of the BRT system. Then there are private forms of formal transport, such as the private car which seems to be the mode of preference in South Africa (a big misfortune) and other forms of private formal transport such as uber, taxify, and meter cabs that cater to a higher income bracket population.

The informal transport system in Cape Town is comprised dominantly of the mini bus taxi system, which acts as a capillary network between nodes that do not give walking distance access to users who would like to get to their destination with time in mind, which is often the case. These taxis cater to short distance trips and function at a significantly lower price than that of the formal system, making it more affordable to majority of the population. So, is public transport in Cape Town effective?

Let’s use the hypothetical example where the one lane on ALL roads within Cape Town are dedicated to the MyCiti bus system. To add to the scenario, the MyCiti becomes efficient in reducing time of travel due to no traffic, even with frequent stops. It is no secret that population growth is increasing at an exceptional rate and so, with one less lane, congestion for private cars is guaranteed. And so we reach a stage where the MyCiti becomes the preferred mode of transport to those who previously used private cars as; and with this increase in usage of the BRT, the maintenance costs would be more easily covered leading to a potential decrease in travel fares.

However, this caters to the middle income to high-income commuter (which I suspect the MyCiti has been designed for from the get go). The problem lies in this public service being unable to accommodate the low income bracket population, because the truth is, a huge portion of commuters within this bracket do not have the privilege of considering opportunity cost. And so even if the MyCiti bus were to implemented holistically over Cape Town, reaching the periphery in the same fashion that mini bus taxi’s do; without a decrease in fares, it would still be unaffordable to majority of the population and we would find ourselves exactly where we are now, with empty MyCiti buses running on schedule and overloaded minibus taxi’s driving parallel to these buses and commuters getting off at many of the same stops.

A big observation from the readings I’ve come across on transport, including that by Julio D. Dávila and Peter Brand titled Urban Mobility and Poverty: Lessons from Medellin and Soacha, Colombia highlight that the answer does not lie in formalizing the informal. In fact it is far from that. From conversations with my colleges who went on this journey around Cape Town, we realized and suggested that lessons need to be learnt from the informal taxi system. Firstly, the mere fact that this system was created through the agency of the people, and is a self-sustaining and complex economic model is reflective of how effective it is as a transport system. But, do we mean by effective and efficient? – Because there are degrees of both in both the formal and informal public transport systems.

We arrived at a brainstorm and discussion on effeciency. The formal public transport system is efficient in that (if well maintained) can be fully reliable in terms of a schedule; and this is in particular mention to the metro rail which does not have to consider traffic of other vehicles. However, the current metro rail is poorly maintained and therefore not an efficient mode of transport when considering time and punctuality. With a focus on the BRT system, the formal transport system is also efficient in having set routes, schedules, maps and catering to disabilities through the design of the vehicles. The loading of money onto cards reduces dwell time when getting on and off the bus and so, this adds to reducing the time spent at each stop allowing the trip to be faster than that where cash transaction means of money exchange occur.

Then there is the informal transport system, and why it is extremely effective in it’s own right. The commuter can negotiate where to stop along the route of the taxi, which means that when you want to catch a taxi, your travel time by foot is reduced, and access to this system is expanded. Here, there is value in cash transaction as a means of money exchange because this means that one can hop on the taxi sporadically without having to access a main vendor to purchase a card and load money onto that card. (However, simple card vending machines at MyCiti stops could eliminate this problem). The informal taxi system speaks to access, because it is affordable, frequent and acts as a capillary network that reaches a broader area of Cape Town. This makes it convenient for the commuter to leave their house, walk to the closest taxi which is not too far away, and commute to the next intermodal node that will allow them to either switch taxi’s or opt for formal transport that will take them to their desired location.

Where the informal system works more efficiently, in my opinion, is in the fact that with class being the greatest segregation device in “post” Apartheid South Africa, it gives access to all income brackets. It is unfortunate that it is ablest, which is a lesson to be learnt from BRTs in the formal transport system.

So what do we do?

Firstly, we found that a day of experiencing commuting around Cape Town using only public transport was not enough time to observe. There are various other variables to consider before reaching concise decisions, such as peak hours and safety (which is another reason why people who can, opt for the privacy of their private car). So, a starting point starts with conversation. The obvious challenge is who facilitates that conversation? When various stakeholders are not currently at same table and the bureaucratic players are not serving their role of bringing these various stakeholders to the table to discuss co-production and collaboration, progress is difficult. Transport infrastructure engineers, mini bus taxi system representatives, private transport representatives and commuter representatives need to start chatting, in order to prevent conflict in future plans.

Using the same hypothetical example of the one lane on ALL roads being reserved for the BRT as mentioned earlier in the post; we would potentially see huge conflict between the BRT and the informal mini bus taxi system, because taxis would be fighting for space in the congested lanes with private cars and so, the system would become less efficient and the possibility of losing money would increase. (Maybe people would create their own carpool systems? Who knows?) And so, these conversations are imperative to prevent that kind of conflict- maybe the BRT and could taxis negotiate in the reserved lane, and we let it happen? We need to come to terms with the fact that we cannot eliminate the informal taxi system.

How do we read our ways of moving in the city with situated knowledge, without constantly referring to the effective models presented and present in Global North cities. The fact is that there is an abundant amount of other knowledge yet to be uncovered because we have confined the effectiveness of our economy, transport, and political systems in proximity to the Global North. As soon as we begin to delink from that, perhaps we can allow for principles of functioning that suit our context- our South African context- instead of deeming our system inefficient because we haven’t reached ‘Global Standards’ yet.

How do we move forward?

We need leadership, leadership that prioritizes ACCESS. As designers and citizens, we are working in reaction to a city intentionally designed to segregate. Access is a tool in amending our built environment. The challenge is that this will come at a cost, but in the greater scheme of humanity- surely it is a cost worth facing, strategically?


More reading

  1. Brand, Julio D. Dávila and Peter. Urban Mobility and Poverty: Lessons from Medellin and Soacha, Colombia. London: Development Planning Unit, UCL & Faculty of Architecture , 2013.
  2. UN Habitat. Planning and Design for Sustainable Urban Mobility . Abingdon : Routledge, 2013.
  3. “Someone finally mapped Cape Town’s bewildering taxi network”
  4. Cape Town to subsidise bus rides for unemployed


Watch last week’s film on Intermodality

By Michael Brooke, Hlohi Ndlovu, Jessica Saunders, Khensani de Klerk

Leave a Reply