Rea Vaya – BRT in Johannesburg

Rea Vaya, Africa’s first true BRT system, commenced operations in Johannesburg on August 31, 2009 (see a video of the first day of operations here). Phase 1A includes the T1 trunk line, which uses articulated buses to convey 30,000 daily passengers through the 21 enclosed stations between Thokoza Park in Soweto to Ellis Park via the Central Business District. It also includes circulatory buses in the CBD and neighborhood feeder routes in Soweto (see route maps here). Construction of additional phases is ongoing; the system will eventually criss-cross the city, with a corridor running north through Sandton to Sunninghill. Rea Vaya faced violent opposition from some sectors of the preexisting minibus taxi industry. Strong municipal leadership and a focus on building meaningful relationships between stakeholders has enabled the system’s success, not only as a transportation corridor, but also as a tool to realize higher aspirations for Joburg’s urban space.

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Joburg’s MMC (Member of the Mayoral Committee) for Transport, Rehana Moosajee, has been one of the driving forces behind Rea Vaya. She graciously shared with me her perspectives on the system’s development and arranged for me to take guided tours of the its routes and central control center. In 2006, Joburg’s newly elected mayor decided to elevate transport to a stand-alone portfolio within the city’s government. This act underscored the importance of public transportation, and it was with a clear mandate that MMC Moosajee and others in the government began exploring options to transform the city’s mobility options. They invited leading BRT proponents to give a presentation, which included a showing of Making Things Happen with BRT. This short film promises numerous benefits for the urban environment (and politicians’ careers) from a high quality, world-class, subsidy-free transport mode. Leaders simply need to have the “guts,” “bite the bullet,” and take the first steps towards building a BRT system.

Determined to move forward with BRT, the city began laying the groundwork for Rea Vaya. They anticipated strong resistance from existing minibus taxi operators, whose industry and self-governance evolved on the margins of apartheid governmentality. The informal transit sector simultaneously contested and enabled apartheid practices, and in today’s Rainbow Nation, their market niche continues to be “the preservation of apartheid spatiality,” as South Africa’s Deputy Minister for Transport Jeremy Cronin put it. Given the minibus industry’s historically complicated relationship with government, the city government knew that building trust would be vital, and they accordingly employed a number of key tactics:

  • Giving taxi industry leaders “exposure to comparable informal operators.” When touring other cities that had also formalized previously informal systems, minibus industry leaders sensed an “element of resonance.” Realizing that informal operators in South Africa were not unique, and that others were better off for having embraced change, helped motivate industry leaders to move forward in cooperation with the city.
  • Using city money to hire technical advisors of the industry’s choosing, thereby enhancing the industry’s trust in government
  • Building strong, trusting relationships before beginning independently-moderated, formal negotiations
  • Seeking out visionary leadership in the minibus industry
  • Highlighting growing public pressure on the industry

Thus, more important to the project’s success than the hard infrastructure of dedicated lanes or stations were what MMC Moosajee called the “softer, silent issues behind enabling transformation.” Attending courses on “change management” with taxi industry leaders helped them understand, “If you don’t make a transformation, it’s to your own detriment.” For such an intense focus on relationship-building, “political involvement and will in driving the initial phases are key.” In Johannesburg, these “softer issues” were not for the faint of heart. MMC Moosajee’s house was attacked in the middle of the night, and she now has two bodyguards. As she told me, “I don’t think people realize how much guts you need…maybe it’s better you don’t know up front.”

Such courageous and visionary leadership, both on the part of the city government and the minibus operators who formed PioTrans, enabled the inauguration of Rea Vaya within three years of its proposal. Though other African cities, like Dar es Salaam, resolved to implement BRT years before, Joburg was the first city on the continent to successfully implement a full BRT system.

I talked with a number of Sowetans about their opinions on Rea Vaya. A vendor in the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication told me she still prefers minibus taxis, since they tend to pick passengers up closer to their homes and people are used to the way they work. In contrast, a university student I talked to on the inbound T1 shared that she loved the new service and used it often; her only complaint was that at peak periods, the buses are too crowded.

With approximately one million boardings per month, Rea Vaya has indeed been successful in terms of carrying passengers. It has also helped improve a number of larger urban issues: improving environmental quality, overcoming the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, bettering communities, and instilling a sense of decency in people’s daily commute. In short, MMC Moosajee believes that Rea Vaya has “changed peoples’ perspective on their own space.” When the system is complete, a station in Soweto will look the same as a station in Sandton; Rea Vaya is a world class transport system in the heart of a township. Earlier this year, New York City’s planning and transportation commissioners made their own visit to Soweto and shared how impressed they were with the Rea Vaya. Indeed, delegations of transport planners from around the world have toured Rea Vaya to learn more about successful BRT implementation.