12 October 2012

Zimbabwe: Thrive to Create a Viable Public Transport System

Harare City Council has finally deployed staff into the bus terminuses and ranks in the city centre, backed by the Zimbabwe Republic Police to enforce traffic and licensing laws. However, they must move swiftly to create the managed public transport system the city requires, commuters crave and other motorists demand.

While kombis serving the modest number of eastern routes can be squashed into the huge Fourth Street terminus, the holding area in Coventry Road for the tiny terminuses serving the far larger number of southern, western and northern routes is still not yet ready. We do not want to hear excuses for the delays, just a determination to have this bus park finished promptly.

The traffic management system, which everyone agrees with, will solve many of the most pressing problems, cannot be properly implemented until this holding park is complete and managed by municipal traffic staff in radio communication with colleagues at terminuses who will order waiting kombis once the small numbers at the terminuses leave after loading.

The city centre and most of the rest of Harare, is still missing signs for bus stops. By-laws and road rules require that buses and kombis can only stop to drop off and pick up passengers at designated stops, and even then they cannot linger or park at these, only being allowed to stop for the couple of minutes required to let people on and off.

We all know the problem of roads being clogged for long periods by kombis waiting in quite inappropriate places to fill and the flagrant and dangerous practice of kombi drivers to stop at intersections, when traffic laws state clearly that no one may pull to a verge within 7m of any intersection.

Both commuters and kombis need properly marked and convenient bus stops chosen for safety and close to places where commuters do want to wait for a bus, get off a bus or get on a bus. These are not expensive and there is more than enough expertise to work out where to erect them, or in most cases re-erect them since they were all in place up to the 1990s.

Most main roads still have their tarred bus stopping areas, and those where it is impossible to have hard shoulders still have places where a bus could stop fairly safely.

While the council is sorting out the management systems it should also start upgrading the facilities are terminuses and at bus stops. Vandals and looters have destroyed most of the shelters that were there in the days when Zupco ran a decent bus service. Now the council must manage services the council needs to start restoring basic infrastructure.

We understand the council plans on charging US$1 entry fees. A lot of that money will be needed to pay the salaries of the terminus and traffic supervisors. But some, say a quarter, could easily be devoted to an on-going improvement programme.

The expelled touts, after all, managed not only to make a good living themselves, but also fund fancy housing in the northern suburbs for their gangland bosses. The new system needs to finance adequate salaries for municipal staff and better facilities all round.

The council should also re-introduce sponsored shelters. In the dying days of Zupco services an innovative marketing agency created attractive bus shelters with plastic panels displaying advertising. These would be ideal at both terminuses and at suburban bus stops once again; we all need to remember that the rains start soon.

Such sponsorship would allow the council to accelerate the upgrading, at no cost to ratepayers or kombi drivers, and might even help to provide additional revenue to keep fees as low as possible.

A snappy council tender could almost certainly find suitable businesses ready to give the idea a go.

At the same time the council could look at vending sites at terminuses. Commuters will always want something to eat or drink while waiting for a bus, but no one needs the disorganised chaos that we often see.

Fourth Street has proper stalls for at least some vendors and those seem to both meet the legitimate needs while keeping litter and nuisances at bay. Again some careful though could see suitable stalls erected at no cost to the council and even providing a modest extra flow of income for traffic operations.

As we have said, several times, the creation of a decent management system for public transport for Harare is both urgent and on-going. No one, least of all us, expects the council to create one instantly. But we all expect the system to be better this week than last week, and better still next week.

The two required moves, the expulsion of the touts and the deployment of municipal staff, have now been done. From now on it is simply a continuous process of refinement and improvement.

We hope that the post of public transport manager for the city council will soon be created and filled by a person who knows a lot about the subject and is willing to learn a lot more as he or she untangles the mess and finds innovative solutions to the conflicting demands of bus owners, commuters, business people and other road users. The job is not impossible, just difficult.

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