Johannesburg, South Africa


Johannesburg began its massive development under oppressive apartheid. In 1975, Ponte City, a cylindrical skyscraper of 54 storeys, was built in the whites’ only area of Hillbrow, making it the highest residential tower in Africa. In the same year, the Western Bypass section of the N1 was completed as a route around the city centre to access Witwatersrand. Construction began in that year on the M1 De Villiers Graaff freeway connecting the south including Soweto to the city centre and extending to Sandton, the wealthy northern commercial centre of Johannesburg. All of these infrastructure developments became carriers of the post-apartheid spatial heritage of the city. In the south the poor continue to live in concrete shacks and have limited work, and in the north, the wealthy work in modern commercial buildings and go home to green leafy suburbs. Service jobs connected the two zones. These jobs are available to those in the south who can bear the heavy peak travelling times between the south and the north.

Johannesburg is now a much more positively inclusive and liveable city than under apartheid, but there is much to be done. Today, long after the end of formal separate development, the prior configuration of stark spatial separation continues to confront the city. There are no walls dividing people, but the effect is no less confronting. The south-west freeway has just been massively upgraded, linking working-class Soweto and the downtown area of Johannesburg. But between them is a nether zone of continuing mining operations, slag heaps and undermined wastelands. These are ‘bad lands’ where building will require considerable engineering care.

Urban development in Johannesburg now stretches along two axes. One projection focuses on the north and continues the spatial divide between the concrete shacks and commercial high-rises. Recently, a Hong Kong-based company, Shanghai Zendai Property Ltd, announced its intention to build an alternative financial centre to the Sandton business district. It will be ‘on par with cities like New York and Hong Kong in the Far East’, said Dai Zhikang, Chairman of the company. What is intended is a gateway for Chinese firms investing in Sub-Saharan Africa. This kind of development confirms the development of a dual city. The second axis pushes to the south-west into a vast zone of badly serviced suburbs for the poor.

This is the dual reality of the city. It is a metropolis with one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. Currently Johannesburg has 4.4 million inhabitants and a population growth rate of 3.4 per cent. A high proportion of those people are poor, with approximately 30 per cent unemployment and 67.4 per cent of households with an income of less than R3,200 per month. Consequently, and in line with national and provincial planning paradigms, the city launched a ‘Growth and Development Strategy’ with a long-term vision until 2040 to make ‘Johannesburg as a world-class African city of the future — a vibrant, economically inclusive and multi-cultural African city; a city that provides real quality of life, for all its citizens’.

This led to the Department of Transport redefining its development goals:

  • Building a leading, responsive and activist transportation sector in the city which works in partnership with stakeholders and residents;
  • Planning, policies and co-ordination for integrated and sustainable transport;
  • Promoting public transport, walking and cycling as modes of choice;
  • Building co-responsibility and a value-based culture to enable behavioural change towards transport issues;
  • Providing high-quality, safe, accessible, affordable and environmentally friendly public transport services;
  • Building, maintaining and managing the road infrastructure and systems to ensure safety, accessibility and mobility for all road-users including pedestrians;
  • Transforming the construction, maintenance and management of storm water to respond to climate change and water scarcity and ensure the safety of residents and infrastructure; and
  • Building, maintaining and managing public transport and non-motorized transport infrastructure to support walking, cycling and the use of public transport.

The modal split between different modes of transport assessed in 2002 showed that, for non-car use, 47 per cent of the 35 million daily trips were made by public transport, whereas 72 per cent of them are made with privately operated vans. The vans had the advantage of flexibility, but they were often controlled by gangs, were polluting and unsafe.

Designing an Alternative Bus Transit System

A fast bus system (a Bus Rapid Transit or BRT system) called the Rea Vaya was initiated in 2006 and three years later in August 2009 the first dedicated trunk route was operationalized from Soweto to the inner city of Johannesburg. Today this Phase 1A service carries 43,000 passengers per day and travels 6.5 million kilometres per annum on the trunk line, as well as linking to feeder routes and complementary slower buses. The decision on the selection of the route was influenced by the fact that it is a high-demand corridor linking Soweto to Sandton and thus the poor south with the rich north. Moreover, it linked the Soccer City and Ellis Park Stadiums to the ‘accommodation hub’ in Sandton during the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Linking this back to the sustainability profile of Johannesburg, what the profile suggests is that there are critical issues that are less than satisfactory in Johannesburg pertaining to the areas of ‘built-form and transport’, ‘embodiment and sustenance’, particularly relating to physical health of urban residents, ‘emissions and waste’, ‘materials and energy’, both connected to car and van dependency, and ‘wealth and distribution’. There is only space here to give the broadest response and explanation (leaving out a lot of interpretive work that lies beneath the surface of the Profile Circle shown above). However, in short, what the analysis tells us is that the Rea Vaya project could possibly have a central strategic position in relation to these critical issues.

More than a bus infrastructure project, the Rea Vaya needs to be considered in response to some fundamental ecological issues, and the basic economic issue of wealth distribution in the city supported by a skewed built-form. If the Rea Vaya can change the spatial separation between the poorer south-west and the wealthier north; if the Rea Vaya can contribute to reducing carbon and particulate emissions, and decrease dependency on heavy fossil-fuel use by cars; if the Rea Vaya can be part of changing how people move around the city — then it could make a substantial difference to improving the ecological and economic sustainability of the city. The heartening part of the analysis indicates that in the political domain there is the will, capacity and potential community engagement to develop the Rea Vaya in this way.

Concretely, the city has set up a strategy to identify and map the whole network of public transport, freight, walking and cycling corridors and nodes, and to identify the most appropriate mode, routes and services that will be contracted or licensed to operate in each corridor. Over time it will construct and develop already-identified public transport corridors and focus on the Rea Vaya system.

However, our Peer Review process conducted in 2013 suggested that the vision needed to be even bigger. For all of its technical ecological innovations, it needed to give the bus service political edge and cultural identity. Patronage and cultural identification with the Rea Vaya continues to be limited. People in the south see it as just a fancy bus service. They are suspicious of the credit card system used to pay for the bus. Our Review confirmed that the integrated transport hubs and bus stations need to be associated with fully realized transport-oriented development. That is, Rea Vaya needed to develop a public vision projecting the use of the stations as places around which to build carefully designed housing estates that would bring poor and well-off citizens into a living association. In 2013, in association with this kind of thinking, the main transit corridors for the Rea Vaya BRT were thus given the additional name of ‘Corridors of Freedom’ — with a vision to integrate disadvantaged people by providing affordable access to mobility.

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