Is the humble bus set to become history?

Buses in New York City, last winter. Image: Getty.

In 1890, no one foresaw the rise of the internal combustion engine: horses were the fastest means of transport, and a status symbol.

Today, society stands at a similar tipping point. No one can really predict how transport will be used in the coming century, or if people will even need to travel as much as they do today. But some of the most commonly used modes of public transport may be closer to extinction than previously thought.

Buses have been a reliable feature of urban and rural landscapes for more than 200 years. They have helped to define communities; think of London’s red double-decker bus, or the iconic Greyhound bus across the US. And buses have traditionally been a great social leveller: ethnic minority groups fought hard for the right to share the same seats and stops and the poor enjoy the same regulated prices as the middle class.

Yet the end of the bus has already been signalled. In the UK, there has been a reported decline in bus and train usage over recent decades – and it’s not related to the nation’s sluggish economy. Today, only 5 per cent of journeys are made by bus, with 10 per cent by rail, 1 per cent by air, 1 per cent by bicycle and 83 per cent by car or taxi.

Automation domination

The UK has added 45,000 more private hire vehicles in the last year, driven by Uber and similar ride-sharing companies. These organisations are dominant in London, but they are becoming more active in other metropolitan areas.

Uber rolled out to eight areas across the UK in 2016, and Gett has grown by acquiring and repurposing traditional taxi companies such as Radio Taxis. And point-to-point minibus services, such as those piloted by Slide in Bristol, UK, and Chariot (backed by Ford) in San Francisco, US, are also expanding into more cities. Surely it’s just a matter of time before their reach expands properly into rural areas.

Get the data. Image: Department for Transport.

According to a British think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the convenience and automation provided by digital technology such as smart phones puts 63 per cent of transport jobs at risk of replacement over the next 50 years. Plus, fleets of autonomous vehicles are set to decimate the automotive industry, potentially reducing the number of vehicles required in the UK by over 75 per cent.

A cheaper ride

This transport revolution does provide an opportunity to increase the quality of service and to reduce subsidies, where they exist, by increasing efficiency. It could also lower transport staff numbers and the amount of cash spent on fuel. But all of this will come at a cost.

People who use public transport have traditionally enjoyed “positive” regulations, which ensures usage is fair and open to all. Subsidies from local or city government go towards servicing underused routes – in rural areas, for example – and offering discounted or free fares for young people and pensioners. But now, this model is coming under increasing pressure.

The cost of running a public transport system is effectively fixed in advance, and relies on enough passengers actually travelling to cover the costs. The average number of journeys per worker, per week dropped from 7.1 in 1988-92 to 5.7 in 2013-14, leading to a shortfall in expected demand. And changes in the funding rules mean there is no guarantee that operational subsidies will be available going forward; indeed, the central government has already removed its grant for London’s transport body.

A similar fate awaits metro systems and commuter rail services, and the problem will become chronic if – or rather, when – autonomous vehicles start to spread.


New rules

Silicon Valley tech start ups are now subsiding journeys with discounted travel to get into the transport market. But this is not for the economic benefit of users. Rather, it undermines the existing transport systems and create new, unregulated markets. This could lead to travellers paying whatever the monopoly dictates. In all likelihood, surge pricing will occur, forcing the less affluent into the least popular time slots and the least desirable vehicles.

Perhaps regulating these new modes of transport is part of the answer. But it’s also important to consider how subsidies are applied. One line of thought is that subsidies should be focused on areas where travel choice is restricted. But budgetary pressures could easily mean leaders choose to reduce, rather than redistribute, the subsidy. This would lead to further inequality between the rich and the poor, in a world where social mobility is becoming increasingly difficult.

To inform reasonable regulations and fair subsidy strategies, there needs to be a consensus, or some leadership, about the ultimate aims of transport; whether it’s for growing the economy, connecting communities or something else. In the UK this is more difficult due to governmental structures, whereby ministers focusing on delivery modes (such as rail, road and walking) rather than outcome (commuting, intercity travel and freight, for example).

But there are some good examples to follow, with countries such as Germany rethinking transport with a Department for Transport and Digital Infrastructure, which plans for a wider range of options to pursue social and economic goals.

One thing is for sure: there will be fewer buses around in the future. This disruption will affect communities, but this challenge could also create an opportunity to shape society to function better, by design.

Future generations will live by different rules, have different values and be presented with different opportunities to us. The decisions we make today will have a real and lasting impact on those generations in ways we cannot yet understand – let’s hope we get it right for them.

Marcus Mayers, Visiting Research Fellow, University of Huddersfield and David Bamford, Professor of Operations Management, University of Huddersfield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

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.