Mass transit by express bus systems is better than the Gautrain option

Whether it's called the Shilowa Express, Gautrain or anything else, the facts are that it won't accomplish the goals set for it. The new train from the Johannesburg city centre through Sandton, and then branching off to Pretoria and the airport, will be a massive burden on taxpayers. It will redistribute some jobs, but create none of its own since the additional taxes will reduce jobs in productive segments of the economy.

And worse yet, if history is any indication, it won't even reduce traffic congestion. There is a boring indicator called the Road Congestion Index (RCI) that measures traffic congestion in all urban areas in the United States – where such rail projects have frequently been promoted by local politicians seeking fame. And yet when the RCI is looked at we find two important points.

First, urban areas that added rail or light rail transit systems did not reduce traffic congestion at all. Secondly, traffic congestion grew faster in those areas than in other urban areas. The unavoidable fact is that individual vehicles are preferred by the vast majority of commuters because of their greater flexibility, a benefit that rail can never provide.

This is also the reason that bus service is a better option than trains, whilst not being nearly as flexible as taxis or cars. But instead of improving Johannesburg bus services – which are widely seen as being poorly run – billions will be spent on a rigid transit system with no discernible benefits. Even mass transit commuters, mainly taxi riders, will prefer the flexibility of taxi services. A rail system is only useful to people who live within a short distance of a train station and need to arrive at destinations that is only a short distance from another station. In addition, trains are most useful to commuters that wish to make direct trips without stopping anywhere in between – something that is difficult to do while using a rail system.

Buses are closer to the flexible nature of cars and would be the first choice of mass transit commuters if they were paying the full cost of their transport. That is, if no mass transit system was being subsidised by taxpayers. We should also remember that buses are widely produced worldwide and there is consequently good deal of competition between manufacturers while railway carriages are produced by a very limited number of companies. Greater competition means greater price flexibility and more competition between suppliers.

One of the great problems with fixed rail systems is that demographics and needs constantly change. The planners are intending to build a rail system that views Rosebank and Sandton as major business areas. Yet neither area qualified for such a service just a few years ago. We already have many fixed railway carriages available that were built years ago. But they no longer go where the commuters need to go. So a new system is proposed.

In a few years time there could be other shifts in the market and commuters may desire to go elsewhere. So the only rail-related solution would be to build another multi-billion rand system. Meanwhile buses can go anywhere and don't cost billions in new infrastructure every few years.

Transport expert, Professor John Kain of Harvard, wrote: "With few exceptions studies of the cost-effectiveness of alternative modes have found that some form of express bus system, operating on either an exclusive right of way or a shared facility, would have lower costs and higher performance than either a light or heavy rail system in nearly all, if not all US cities. The tendency of policymakers to ignore the abundant evidence on the superiority of high-performance bus systems is explained by a prior commitment to rail and a willingness to 'cook the numbers' until they yield the desired result."

Transportation expert Peter Samuels notes that there are several reasons that bus service is far better than fixed rail systems: “Buses pick up people closer to their point of origin and drop then off closer to their destination point than does rail service. A disabled train shuts down the system while disabled buses can easily be by-passed by other buses. Buses are more flexible in size and can be tailored to meet the needs of local commuters where rail cars tend to be one size. It's easier to add more buses to service than add more rail cars. Rail service is less flexible on routes.”

And we shouldn't forget that bus service would not require using the raw power of the state to take people's homes from them. It won't require ripping communities in two and it won't require stripping people of their property rights. A bus can drive around a neighbourhood without difficulty. It can make ninety-degree turns and manage steep inclines – trains can't. So instead of destroying someone's home it drives around it.

Unfortunately there is a tendency in politics to see people as fixed items with no wills of their own or with no changing wants and needs. Central planning of transportation is too often built on static premises and hence inflexible systems are proposed when the truth is that transit needs are constantly in flux. Gauteng should learn from the errors that other cities in other countries have made and not merely repeat them. The light rail option requires serious reconsideration.

Author: Jim Peron is a freelance researcher and writer. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement. The patrons, council and members of the Free Market Foundation do not necessarily agree with the views expressed in the article.

FMF Article of the Week\18 June 2002

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