ANALYSIS | What the transport sector taught us during the coronavirus pandemic

Covid-19 is a deadly disruption, sudden and compelling. It demands responses which highlight a harmony between economic and human life trade-offs that ripple through all industries. Policies are the instruments regulators use to adjust their lenses and focus on specific areas to intervene and respond to failing markets.

For the transport sector, the picture is more complex than a snapshot.

Goods movement is expected to continue for essential products and concomitant value chains— this excludes high GDP contributing sectors like mining, and high incentive sectors like automotive sectors. Essential services are expected to continue, that is hospitals, pharmacies and grocery outlets should be open.

All these employees not only need to get to and from work on a daily basis, but the rest of us need to reach the services they offer. For goods and service industries to continue, the mobility and access of employees and the general public comes under the spotlight for a still. However, transportation policy responses reveal inequalities in the underlying transport policy infrastructure in SA.

A snapshot of regulations

The regulations published between 18 and 30 March 2020 cover the aviation, ports and public transport sectors. In principle they respond to Covid-19 through sanitisation and social distancing needs at operational level across all modes, with engineering, administrative and personal protective requirements. For air transport, business operations are marginally accounted for, but ports and public transport only received mention toward the 27th and 30th respectively.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) was instructed to publish guidelines in line with international best practice; the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) also had to ensure that the guidelines are adhered to; and the air traffic navigation sphere was also instructed to adhere to the regulatory requirements. Transnet Ltd, which operates freight transit and related infrastructure, followed by issuing a statement to clarify its practices, operational changes and mitigation strategies.

On the surface the regulatory responses appear appropriate, but National Treasury classifies transport as a network industry, which means it is composed of transit units (vehicles), infrastructure networks (road, rail, skies) and interchanges (ports, airports, bus stops and ranks).

Under normal circumstances, labour that serves these sectors is protected, with guaranteed incomes and employment contracts which account for such events. The policy infrastructure for aviation, ports and rail are complete in that all three of these areas are covered— this is good for goods movement. But where most people interact with transport, the policy infrastructure that deals with vehicles, infrastructure networks and interchanges seem blurry and out of focus from reality.

Blurry vision for practical public transport

We see this blur in how the minibus taxi and shared transport industries are expected to serve employees and consumers. The regulations describe operating hours, which do not account for the fill-and-go practice at the taxi ranks, potential passenger queues at ranks and retail centres, and passengers who are picked-up/dropped-off along routes.

All of this affects how long the commuter travels, waits and is exposed to possible infections. The taxi finance houses were asked to give owners a “pay-holiday”, but it is unclear what this means for the income quotas drivers’ and doormen in some cities and towns. However, looking at the National Transport Master Plan, 2013 data shows on 45{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} of the trips are made for work purposes, we can assume that a fair share isn’t going to work, but might need to buy goods once in a while. In this group 23{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} of them walk to their place of work (2.3 million trips), while 25{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} use taxis (3.6 million trips)— only 32{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} used cars (1.06 million, and 4.2 million truck and company car users). 15{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} used bus or trains to get around, which is about 1.7 million trips joining the minibus taxi and bus service lines.

With many of them not going to work, a similar commuting composition is expected for buying groceries under the lockdown’s queues at shopping areas during peak demand. The problem is compounded by the nature and location of shopping centres in townships, and cities— all of which may distribute consumers in different directions. At a national level, we should be able to forecast the impact of various scenarios, and propose suitable interventions that reduce the time at retail queues and public transport facilities—thus reducing possible exposure.

Walking, transport network companies and freight transport

To my knowledge, the regulations do not discuss the movement requirements for non-motorised transport, nor for shared transport (or transport network companies). Around the world, cities have different responses: some discourage NMT, others encourage cycling and walking but keeping to essential destinations, limiting idling and social-distance are encouraged. Bogota goes as far as converting traffic lanes for NMT and monitoring pedestrian, cycling and public transport volumes during these times.

In SA, we have Roads Policy which leans toward complete streets with sidewalks and accessibility principles; and NMT guidelines which describe the policy and practice needs of pedestrians and cyclists— that is 2.9 million daily work trips (if schools were open now it would be 12.92 million daily trips in total). Yet, there is no mention of what pedestrians and cyclists should or should not do, this only pixelates the picture and causes confusion for some.

For shared transport, the Competition Commission dedicated a unique report specifically for the ride-hailing and metered taxi industry. Locally, transport network companies have also opened themselves up to serve the public with barriers between the passenger and driver, new driver behaviours, and vehicle sanitisation. However, the current regulations to my knowledge are not specifically clear about what these operators should or should not do. Even-though consumer preference or if an emergency or an urgent need to move arises, some people might what to use such services.

Some companies have resorted to issuing their own operational guidelines. The regulations should be integrated enough to cover these services too. That’s why the National Land Transport Act was amended to paint over metered taxis and introduce ride-hailing in the first place.

Lastly, with road freight expected to continue along highways and local roadways, the Road Freight Strategy, implementation plan and information systems in progress should have place an impetus on corresponding guidelines. Instead, the Road Freight Association has gone far and wide to guide members about the implications for labour, trade, regional developments and operations.

Tolling companies have also issued out their own statements about how they will manage and coordinate responses to Covid-19. It is generally expected that traffic volumes may contract during this time, and this may affect non-contract driver income and toll revenues alike. However, the truck-stops facilities, toll plaza practices and other activities associated with freight movement were not outlined as matters to observe on a regulatory level.

Some introspection beyond the crisis

All these activities are in practice without much of a guideline as with the SACAA; taxi ranks and bus stops remain as they were, without an interchange authority like ACSA or the National Ports Authority (and Regulator); and the dynamics of network changes for passenger needs and labour issues seem faded in this time of need. The interchange authority issue is quite serious because Passenger Rail Agency’s AutoPax (City to City and Translux) had preferential treatment at the Johannesburg Park Station long-distance interchange, which is operated by PRASA, and the Competition Commission intervened to correct that market. Just as in aviation, rail and ports, there are international public transport structures which guide transport sectors with best practices. We may need to join as a nation, but adapt the practices to all transport modes and services—providing surety for commuters, pedestrians and cyclists alike, beyond a crisis.

Public and non-motorised transport and freight transport (contracted scholar bus transport) do not seem to have the same policy infrastructure as ports, railways and aviation. This may well systematically fragment policy responsiveness, and the Single Transport Economic Regulator comes to mind as a central instrument for intervention development and readiness, but it is a slow stroke in the making.

Beyond the pandemic, a deeper look at how Integrated Transport Planning is developed and used in practice and crisis across all spheres of transport governance will be called for. We must question the suitability of the current policy infrastructure with respect to its equity, foresight, resilience and responsiveness to change. For the time being, operators, regulators and commuters need to be creative, splashing whatever works on the canvas.

* Ofentse Mokwena is a transport economist. Views expressed are his own. 

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