Here’s why poor local transport is blighting prospects and lives

Buses on Manchester's Wilmslow Road. Image: Divy/Wikimedia Commons.

Every day millions of people rely on local public transport to complete their daily commutes to and from work. When it runs smoothly, we barely pause to think about it: it’s only when something goes wrong that we realise the huge impact transport has on our daily lives.

For decades politicians and policy makers have failed to adapt our transport network to meet the challenges posed by the changing geography of work. Our attention often has been on national, flagship projects between cities at the expense of local public transport within cities. This has resulted in a serious disconnect between where people live and the job opportunities that are available to them. This locks people out from being able to fully participate in the labour market.

Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield, working on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, spoke with out-of-work residents in four low-income neighbourhoods across Greater Manchester and the Leeds city regions.

Those residents consistently highlighted transport as constraining, rather than enabling, their ability to access work and achieve a better standard of living for themselves and their families. This was particularly true when the trade-off between the cost, reliability and speed of local public transport, and the prospect of low-wage, insecure work was considered.

“I’ve been offered a job and it was on the other side of Manchester and I did the bus journey to see how long it would take and it was too inadequate… It was the opposite side of Manchester, like hour and a half, two hours on a bus, it wasn’t just one bus, it was two or three.”

-Female aged 35, Harpurhey, Manchester

Increasingly lower-skilled, manual work in sectors like manufacturing or warehousing is located in more peripheral locations on the outskirts of cities. This has broken the traditional connection between living close to city centres and the probability of increased job opportunities.

Workers who live close to city centres are now finding that the jobs available near to them do not necessarily meet their aspirations, skills or experience. And the transport links to job opportunities elsewhere are poor, meaning the choices available to them are restricted.

“I was talking to my advisor, there’s a place called Sherburn-in-Elmet and they have tons of work, big industrial estate but there’s no bus service, it’s about 13 miles away. I do not understand why they build a big estate where there’s no transport, that’s like tough, if you haven’t got a car you can’t have a job.”

-Male aged 49, Seacroft, Leeds

Those in peripheral locations – where much of our social housing stock is concentrated – fare little better. Poor links around the edge of towns and cities mean what should be a short journey ‘as the crow flies’ in reality is far longer. Often it requires a journey into the city centre and out again, increasing journey time and creating risk of missed connections.

Consequently, we are running the very real risk of creating new ‘cut-off commuter zones’, where people lack the confidence and ability to be able to travel long distances for work because they cannot consistently guarantee arriving on time. The highly competitive nature of the jobs available also means that any poor productivity caused by delays could result in a loss of hours, or being let go.

This comes at a time when the Department for Work & Pensions and Jobcentre Plus’ are expecting jobseekers to take work up to 90 minutes from where they live. We found that residents are more than willing to travel this sort of distance for work: in fact, some had direct experience of doing it in the past. It is therefore unacceptable that the main barrier people face to seizing job opportunities is poor access to public transport.

We can, and must, act to loosen the constraints that poor public transport is placing on people from low-income neighbourhoods.

As more powers are devolved to local leaders – through measures like the Bus Services Act – we have a responsibility to seize the opportunity to improve the availability, affordability and reliability of local public transport to make it easier for people to access employment.

Yet transport policy alone will not completely tackle the disconnect between where people live and where job opportunities are. This can be best achieved if national and local government take a more joined up approach to policy and economic development. We can reduce travel time and costs by simply ensuring new housing and employment developments are served by public transport.

Similarly, by integrating transport and employment policy we can better equip employment support providers to help clients understand their travel choices as part of their return to work.

Tackling the issue of disconnection has to be a priority. Only by seriously investing in, and redesigning, local public transport can we properly ensure it works for local people in the long-term. If we rise to this challenge we can build a more inclusive economy in which everyone can thrive, no matter where they live.

Brian Robson is Acting Head of Policy & Research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent organisation working to end poverty in the UK.



In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.