Photo essay: Improving access to public transport in Cape Town
Port city and seat of South Africa’s Parliament, Cape Town sits beneath the imposing Table Mountain on South Africa’s western coast. An important trading post, Cape Town was founded in the mid 17th-century by the Dutch East India Company as an outpost settlement to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to ships on their way to Asia. These foundations are key to the city’s character: for centuries, Cape Town has attracted people from all over the world, and diversity is at its heart. Groups including San, Cape Malay, Dutch, French huguenots, British, and Xhosa tribes have helped to shape Cape Town’s rich culture and the city has become a food lovers’ paradise, with a vibrant and constantly evolving food scene.
An economic powerhouse, Cape Town is one of the top fifteen fastest growing tech cities in the world. It has projected a 5% GDP growth rate and the city’s economic growth is expanding faster than the rest of the country. Today, South Africa is a liberal democracy, but the country is still experiencing the aftershocks of its apartheid regime (1948–1994) and remains the most economically unequal country in the world.
Cape Town’s socio-economic disparities have a direct impact on public transport use and opportunity. Apartheid spatial planning means that the city is not physically set up to cater to those from lower-income brackets and the lack of integration of public transport services further isolates them from opportunities. Informally run minibus taxis are a popular mode of transport for low-income citizens, with 74% of users having an average monthly household income of R8000 (560 US dollars). 55% of minibus taxi users are unemployed and looking for jobs.
There are over 150 minibus taxi owner associations — compared to just six formal operators. These minibus taxis serve areas of Cape Town not covered by formal operators. These transport links are critical for ensuring community integration. They allow people to access services, jobs, and other parts of the city.
MyCiTi is a formally run bus rapid transit service, launched over a decade ago for the FIFA World Cup, where they proved extremely popular as a shuttle service to Cape Town International Airport. The service has expanded over the years, and now serves over 60,000 passengers a day across Cape Town’s city centre and many suburban areas.
Still, by far the most popular transport mode in Cape Town is the car, with 52% of households choosing to use private cars rather than public transport. The reasons for this are often to do with safety, but also linked to flexibility and ease. The City of Cape Town has recognised the need to address rising congestion levels, and notes that “a significant mode shift is required by Cape Town’s residents:”
Creating a more sustainable future
One of the challenges facing Cape Town’s rail service is ensuring passenger safety. Another is cable theft and vandalism — the vandalism of rail infrastructure can lead to outages and train delays, cancelling services and making train journeys a frustrating experience. While this needs to be addressed, trains struggle beyond safety too.
They are timetable based, but rarely follow departure times, and managing demand versus supply is an ongoing effort.
While it may sound unsurprising that over half of Cape Town’s residents prefer to use private cars, Cape Town is keen to address its public transport shortcomings. In 2020, it developed a climate strategy with goals focused on sustainable transport, inclusivity, and zero emissions. The strategy recognises that “the backbone of the city’s transportation network — the rail system — is ailing. This is exacerbated by increasing population growth and property development in outlying areas of the city, placing a higher demand on commuter services. At the same time, private vehicle ownership is increasing at approximately 3% per annum.”
The climate strategy outlines a vision of becoming a more resilient city, and moves to improve public transport services — grounded in data-driven decisions — will help protect Cape Town’s most vulnerable — helping the whole city to prosper.