Is Harare ready for Bus Rapid Transit System?

In January 2017 the then Minister of Local Government Public Works and National Housing took a delegation to Tanzania to draw lessons on the successful adoption of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Dar es Salaam. This was followed by a search for suitable buses as they visited Brazil and recently exploring South Africa for potential acquisition of metro busses. The visit highlighted three issues regarding Harare’s traffic woes.

Traffic congestion is increasingly becoming alarming in the capital, Harare; BRT is the most applauded and most recommended alternative to address current traffic challenges; and authorities are referencing and drawing lessons from cities of neighbouring countries.

The challenge of traffic congestion and unreliable, unsafe public transport provided by commuter omnibuses in Harare has been a hot topic for long now. There are long-time proposals by the City of Harare to adopt BRT to ease the traffic woes that have characterised the city.

The proposals are gaining momentum since the A1 Taxi Company conducted a 3-months pilot in January 2015 along the city Mabvuku/Tafara route which it considered a success. One of the major cautions by traffic experts has been the need to regulate the metro bus system to restrict competition from other players.

In this ongoing debate, however, four critical issues have not emerged in the same spotlight and are worth highlighting. The caution over traffic lanes expansion, the importance of concurrent inner city urban renewal, incentives for residents’ behavioural change. Most importantly is the viability of Harare’s current land use structure for an efficient BRT.

The risk of solving obesity by loosening the belt

To address the current traffic congestion, some policymakers are proposing for expansion of road infrastructure to accommodate the growing traffic in the city.

Without discounting the need for road infrastructure upgrades, the ambition of solving traffic congestion by increasing lanes need to be adopted with caution. As early as 1950s, increasing traffic lanes was found to instead increase traffic congestion in the long run.

The problem with increasing traffic lanes is that people will use them. So, as traffic is a constant for it expand to field capacity, solving congestion by increasing traffic lanes is popularly likened to solving obesity by loosening the belt.

Increasing traffic lanes in the city need to be in strategic arterial roads as some expansions will trigger more congestion. Mixing land uses is one strategy that effectively reduce congestion as it eliminates or shorten travel trips in cities.

The very nature of traffic engineers’ single-minded pursuit of traffic flow is destroying African cities more than politicians do.

Mix of Land uses and urban density

The mix and density of land uses in urban areas are critical to the success of an efficient transport system. Land use structure is a major hindrance in the efficiency and expansion of BRT in cities of neighbouring countries. The density of land use (such as buildings with more floors to house more people) ensures a sustainable demand for travel each kilometre. Currently, Harare has been adopting a sprawling approach particularly to housing development.

Most of Harare’s residential areas are single family housing units, single story buildings occupying a minimum of 250 square metres to thousands of square metres.

Thus, it becomes more expensive to develop a BRT system per kilometre given the sprawling space it has to cover. The low-density also entail low travel demand for majority of routes particularly to ensure viable seat replacement along the BRT corridor.

Mix of land uses is another critical factor that influence the success of BRT. Globally, land uses in cities used to be exclusively separated. Commercial areas, residential areas and industrial areas had specific separate zones.

While this practice was popularised by industrial revolution, in South Africa where land use structure is constraining efficiency of BRTs, they are blaming this challenge on Apartheid planning system which was segregatory.

Now, land uses of compatible form and functionality are being mixed. This has been a strategy regarded as the best solution to address traffic congestion for it eliminate or shorten travel distance by cars.

For BRT, mix of land uses ensure viable bi-directional travel demand which makes routes viable for a regular timetable. Without mix of land uses, travel demand is mostly one-sided. Residents travel to work in the morning and travel from work in the evening a reason Harare has peak hour traffic congestion.

The settings of land use structure of Harare should be at the centre of debate on sustainable transport adoption.

There have been efforts to promote mixed use development. In the inner city, commercial areas are expanding into neighbouring residential areas such as Eastlea and Avondale. Mixed use development need to be taken with caution however.

With poor regulation and decisions over the percentage of mix, it has become more of ‘land use down-raiding’ than mixed use development. High value land uses (commercial) are displacing low value land uses (residential) for the urban periphery due to the decay of the inner city.

The economic inefficiencies caused by an unsustainable land use structure which currently characterise Harare will increase the BRT’s reliance on government subsidies to ensure affordable fares. Dar es Salaam is an example. Conflicts over affordable fares sparked controversy among operators, the Tanzanian government, and residents.

Given the volatility of our economy, reliance on subsidies will jeopardise the success of the BRT. The inefficiencies also impact the prospects of transport corridor expansion as with such an expense per km the system will not be able to generate enough revenue for expansion of routes.

For example, since 2010, the City of Cape Town and the South African Government have spent about USD 20 million to operate a BRT in Cape Town but generating only USD 4 million in revenues. The Cape Town BRT cannot sustain itself without external financial injection. As City of Harare draw lessons and reference adoption of similar BRT system in neighbouring countries it is critical to draw balanced lessons of what made them succeed and fail for better informed adoption.

Shifting the travel behaviour of urban residents

To complement the regulation of the metro buses that has been advocated by traffic experts, behaviour of urban residents is another critical challenge to be addressed. For more than 20 years now, urban residents are used to the convenience of multiple commuter omnibuses that have no stipulated timetables.

Adjusting that behaviour requires integrated efforts of regulatory enforcement and behavioural economics. Without a change in behaviour, commuter omnibuses will continue operating, serving the niche of convenience. Other than the regulation, the city requires to work with behavioural economists to determine the incentives that will ensure an effective transition from commuter omnibuses to the timetabled metro bus system.

The essence of concurrent inner city urban renewal

We should also remember; the adoption of BRT system requires to be an integral part of inner city urban renewal. The inner city has been succumbing to urban decay for years now. Without the urban renewal, mixed use development will prove to be difficult and the demography that make up the inner city currently will not sustain a viable operation of the Bus Rapid Transit system.

This is so because an efficient BRT system should also incentivise motorists to return to public transport. Currently significant part of motorists left the inner city for suburban office parks and residential areas due to decay of the inner city. Our failure to address these four critical issues will only lead to a bus system which cannot sustain itself and cannot expand to new routes.

Archimedes Muzenda
Archimedes Muzenda is a senior research associate at the African Urban Institute. His research and technical advisory work covers the transformation of cities across Africa focusing on land use planning, urban renewal and municipal reform. His most recent book, Dystopia, discusses the fragmentation caused by specialist approaches to the development of African cities.


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