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Rea Vaya On the Move in Joburg, South Africa
A brand new Rea Vaya bus station in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Maneno.org.

A brand new Rea Vaya bus station in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Maneno.org.

The City of Johannesburg launched Rea Vaya, South Africa’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, on August 30, and by early October the system was reportedly carrying approximately 12,000 daily passengers along the 25 kilometer route between Soweto and downtown Joburg. Like a toddler learning to walk, Rea Vaya has taken its first wobbly step. I believe this small step is a significant milestone for commuters.

Rea Vaya is off to a modest start. The system is not operating at full capacity and many of the traditional BRT features are not yet fully implemented (i.e. smart cards, turnstiles, ITS, feeder buses).  While it is easy to be critical of the starter service’s shortcomings, I prefer to acknowledge what has been accomplished so far.

I celebrate the launch of the starter service, however limited, because I know how hard the Rea Vaya team has worked to implement this BRT and applaud their collective achievement. I am inspired by the City’s steadfast commitment to delivering a first-class public transit system in the face of vocal, and sometimes violent, anti-BRT opposition.

I know Rea Vaya will be efficient, reliable, safe, accessible and good for the environment. These advantages of full-featured BRT systems are often cited and well understood by many advocates of sustainable transportation. However, to fully appreciate the significance of the Rea Vaya launch, one must understand the contrast between Joburg’s existing public transportation and what Rea Vaya promises.

A BETTER ALTERNATIVE

I celebrate Rea Vaya as a dramatic departure from the existing public transportation systems. I lived in Joburg car-free for a year and commuted 22 kilometers round-trip each day from a northern suburb to downtown. Typically I used Metrobus, the city-owned and -operated bus service, except during a five-week Metrobus strike earlier this year when I had to rely on minibus taxis and metered taxis. I recall distinctly that the buses and taxis were not user-friendly, and Metrobus was predictably unreliable. I know first-hand that Rea Vaya is an exciting alternative to what many public transit users endure each day.

Transit Information — Metrobus was difficult to use at first because route maps and schedules were so hard to obtain. A sign with a Metrobus logo identifies the bus stop but no other transit information is displayed. Their website includes timetables for each route but no route descriptions or maps, so unless you already know which route to take, trip planning is cumbersome. Eventually I had to phone the Metrobus helpline to determine I should catch the #80 bus to work, but then had to go down to the Metrobus office to collect a paper copy of the #80 route map. Unfortunately, the elusive route map was such a poor quality photocopy I could hardly decipher the street names.  Without a legible route map or route numbers at each bus stop, initially I had to guess where to wait for the #80. As a first-time user, the system was unfriendly, and trip planning was such a hassle that I only managed to use two routes the whole year.

The ubiquitous informal taxis are no easier to understand. Passengers on the side of the road indicate their desired destination with hand signals. For instance, going inbound, five fingers signal the Noord Street taxi rank via Hillbrow. It is a clever system, but not particularly transparent. I was able to catch taxis into work in the morning, but never figured out the hand signals for outbound or cross-town routes.

Rea Vaya should be easy for everyone to use. The system map and timetables are posted on the website and in the stations, and station attendants are available to further assist passengers. Trip planning should become significantly more convenient for residents and visitors alike.

Reliability — At night the #80 bus came every 20-35 minutes, but the last outbound trip departed at 6:00 p.m., which certainly restricted my mobility. I also came to expect unreliable service. The evening commute was particularly susceptible to heavy congestion, and many nights, downtown Joburg was crippled with gridlock as traffic blocking the intersection on a green light obstructed the opposite direction when the light changed.

Some nights a scheduled bus simply never arrived, so either an entire trip was canceled or my stop was skipped. On particularly congested evenings, some bus drivers tended to adjust their routes on the fly, detouring around gridlocked intersections – a relief for passengers already on the bus, but infuriating for those waiting at the bypassed bus stop for the last outbound bus.

During peak hours, the Rea Vaya starter service has scheduled headways of 5-10 minutes, and the last outbound trip departs at 8:00 p.m. The duration of service gives commuters more flexibility at night, and if traffic enforcement in the busways and intersections is adequate to achieve even twice the desired headways, Rea Vaya will be the most convenient and reliable transit option in Joburg.

I support Rea Vaya for many reasons, but celebrate the launch of the starter service because I endured the alternatives for a year. Rea Vaya will eventually achieve all of the benefits of a full-featured BRT system but in the interim the starter service provides a dramatic contrast to the status quo.