Public transport: Lessons from the past

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Miriam Tose Majome
FOR a country and economy its size, Zimbabwe consumes above normal average fuel. More than US$100 million is reportedly spent a month on fuel imports alone. Unconfirmed reports suggest Zimbabwe consumes more fuel than Saudi Arabia and other smaller countries with much more vibrant economies. This may be shocking, but it is not surprising as there are reasons for this.

The major reason is the lack of a public transport system. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, government has made tremendous strides in re-introducing buses by reviving the dead and buried Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) and banning the independently-owned and operated commuter omnibuses (kombis) in urban areas. This has been one of the government’s most courageous programmes. To a large extent, the buses have provided commuters in urban areas with the much-needed relief despite the myriad inevitable problems and inefficiencies associated with the mass public transport business. Until there is a proper reliable public transport system in the foreseeable future, people will be forced to keep buying discarded vehicles from Japan just to get to work and take children to school.

Very few people, if any, use Zupco buses for daily transportation out of personal choice.

Restoring Zupco’s monopoly to being a transport system of choice is incomplete without looking at the history and evolution of the urban public transportation system in Harare. From independence in 1980, the renamed Harare United Omnibus Company plied most urban routes in and around Harare until the mid-1990s. It ran an admirably efficient system. Its gem was the exclusive school bus service. The school bus service was so efficient that it obviated the need for the tens of thousands of cars doing daily individual school runs as is the case now. Buying a car was a choice and cars were regarded as luxury goods because it was not necessary to own one.

The chaotic culture of the current Harare’s public transport system did not start with the introduction of emergency taxis and minibuses in the 1980s. In the 1950s, there was a hotch-potch of independent buses much like the present system. There were also smaller black transport operators who operated on the fringes of the city catering for black commuters. Bus wars between rival companies were commonplace. Double decker buses of that era were known to speed dangerously neck to neck on the city’s narrow roads, competing aggressively for passengers — a practice not uncommon in today’s cutthroat competition between kombi and mushikashika rivals.

Salisbury town councillors aggressively voted to end the chaos by establishing a monopoly. The municipality muscled its way into amending its by-laws which had allowed independent bus companies to operate. The bus companies challenged the move and took it all the way to the Supreme Court and won, but the council disregarded the court order and established the monopoly anyway.  Thus the council became the only public transport operator in the city, providing a separate bus service and routes for whites and blacks.

The bigger bus companies went into partnerships with the city, but the smaller unregistered black operators continued to operate under the radar. They siphoned passengers away from bus stops and picked them at undesignated places pretty much like the banned kombis do today. They were called pirate taxis and that is where the name originated. They caused massive town planning and law enforcement problems for the authorities as they do today.

The council wanted a monopoly over the city’s transport system for various reasons including revenue and order. It managed to tame the chaos and bring a hitherto unknown level of efficiency that subsisted for a long time from the 1950s up to the 1990s. The council issued a pamphlet to city residents in 1952 justifying the reasons for taking over the transportation system. It argued that city mass transportation could not be provided by private operators because it was not a profit-making venture, but was an essential social service which supported the different arms of the economy.

It explained that it was the obligation of a local authority to provide cheap, continuous and reliable services for all areas in the city both rich or poor. It highlighted that not all routes were commercially viable yet had to be serviced regardless of cost and loss and that only a public utility was able to perform that service. Private commercial companies would inevitably neglect
non-viable routes and fail to serve the public yet they paid rates and taxes too.

Records from across the country showed that none of the municipal transportation services made profits. They were all loss-making and relied on central government for support because it was generally agreed that public transportation is a public service that should be guaranteed by government.

Indeed, commuters are taxpayers and should not just be abandoned to struggle alone to make it to work and home daily. Daily commuting is often an arduous task. Commuters have to face the elements, rain, wind, heat, and the night. Employees need more respect and decent reliable transport.

The council explained that private commercial transporters contributed a lot to road damage yet did not contribute to road maintenance. The council maintained roads directly through rates collections.

The reason why the country’s roads are in such bad state today is that the tens of thousands of kombis have contributed to the wear and tear without contributing to their maintenance.

Most importantly, passenger transport services are an integral component of town planning. Private transporters are not concerned with commercial and residential areas planning and so lack an understanding of the entire transportation network that helps in appreciating how a  city functions.

Local authorities or the State’s major concern is not profit, but the safety and convenience of passengers. Local authorities are able to leverage against their many assets and raise capital to finance their operations at more favourable terms that keep fares low.

They are in a position to finance their operations from public funds like rates unlike private companies which do not have the same resources for capital and infrastructural development.

Soon after securing the monopoly to control the city’s transportation business, the municipality entered into mutually beneficial sub-contracting partnerships with private transport operators.

Private transporters, who met the standard, could still operate commercially, while the council remained in control.

The council routinely invited tenders for the establishment of, maintenance and operation of omnibus services.

The Salisbury United Bus Company won the tender and entered into an agreement with the city which was to last until 1987.

After independence, Zupco ground to a halt mostly due to mismanagement, theft, corruption and political interference. Government took over Harare United private company and muscled it out of the more than half a century partnership with the city council.

Government tried in vain to take over the service and run its own service, but it failed dismally. State-owned companies are not known for their trailblazing efficiency and good management. After years of teetering on the blink, Zupco died an inevitable death.

Government cancelled council monopolies and in 1992 allowed everyone and anyone with any vehicle with four wheels to step in and provide urban transport. Thus began the unmitigated chaos prevailing in the country’s main cities.

Despite all the difficulties involved, government has shown that it is serious about restoring order in the urban transport systems. The council monopoly over public transportation is a tried and tested model which worked well for more than 50 years.

Government efforts should be complemented because everyone agrees the kombi system had grown into a public nuisance.

Barring all the challenges involved, a properly and efficiently run public transport system has innumerable benefits to the economy and the city landscape.