The state of public transport in South Africa

The state of public transport in South Africa – Understand


Transportation is an essential part of the development of any country.

In South Africa, the public transport industry comprises of three main modes of transport: the traditional commuter rail system and the new Gautrain high-speed rail between Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and the Oliver Tambo International Airport; the subsidized and unsubsidized commuter bus industry, including the two-bus rapid (BRT) system in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and a growing 16 seater minibus-taxi industry (Aropet, 2017).

In the 2013 National Household Travel Survey, findings obtained revealed that 68.8% of South African households use taxi services daily, followed by commuter bus (21.1%) and commuter rail operations (9.9%), (Statistics S.A 2014:6). 

Despite the available modes of transportation, South African transport is still plagued with several challenges. These comprise of low ridership, lack of public transport accessibility in rural areas, equity imbalances and congestion (Jennings, 2015). The South African public transport industry is currently under immense enquiry as captive users of these systems face unsafe, unreliable and costly systems (Walters, 2014). 

Aropet (2017) argues that the provision of safe, accessible, and affordable public transport infrastructure is a vital requirement for the socio-economic development of the South African population. This scholar propagates that it also holds the potential to provide for decent wages and working conditions for the sector’s employees, as well as for those sectors that depend upon it for demand for their output (Aropet, 2017).

The system of apartheid in South Africa left a legacy of social segregation, and a highly distorted separation of people from both their places of work and most of social services required to live a productive life (Walters, 2014). Therefore, this scholar annotates that the post-apartheid challenge has been to restructure these geographies of exclusion and inequality and provide a more effective system of public transportation.


Historical development of public transport in South Africa

Passenger transport under apartheid, and white minority rule before apartheid, was a critical site of contestation and common protest.

Khosa (1995), argues that “The South African passenger transportation system was by and large designed for daily transportation of labor to and from the workplace” (Khosa, 1995:167). This habitually involved transporting people of African descent from the peripheries of urban centers into the inner cities. This was often based on the racially segregated nature of minority rule (Khosa, 1995:167). Moreover, this scholar propagates that, “in time, transport became a site of popular struggles and a dramatic expression of tensions and disputes over control, management and affordability of racially divided spaces” (Khosa, 1995:168).

Particular struggles have been documented by scholars and activists during the years which establishes a rich historiography surrounding the important questions of public transport in South Africa.

As a result of the Group Areas Act, certain communities were located some distance from places of employment, recreation and shopping facilities (Thomas, 2016). Thus, cheaper modes of transport were introduced to ease commuter financial travel burden.

During that time, transportation was regarded as a basic human right, along with other important social services such as health and education (Thomas, 2016).


More than 21 years into the democratic era, South Africa’s dreams of efficient, affordable and integrated public transportation systems remain deferred (Mthimkhulu, 2017). This scholar argues that “existing challenges that are present emanate from years of poorly provided, yet heavily subsidized, systems and networks among spatial segregation and other roots of unequal provision of infrastructure” (Mthimkhulu, 2017).

During the scope of the 1996 White Paper on National Transport Policy and the past pioneering papers such as the Moving South Africa (MSA) strategy, the Public Transport Strategy (PTS) and Action Plan, and most recently, the Integrated Public Transport Network (IPTN) plans; efforts have been made to transform the provision of public transport infrastructure (Walters, 2008).

To get a conceptual understanding of the state and challenges of public transport in South Africa, this paper draws from findings obtained in the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) study as a clear point to start. Conducted in 2014, this study assessed the degree to which public transport services are offered and facilities provided and expresses the associated cost and affordability for the users of public transport.

The data obtained in this study revealed that “only 30% of households in South Africa own a car with the other 70% depending on taxis, buses, trains and other non-motorised transport modes” (Mtizi, 2017:2). Each of the available modes of public transport in South Africa has numerous challenges.


According to the NHTS, “in 2014, train users (42%) were generally more than satisfied (37%) with train services” (NHTS, 2014: 8).

Before making use of the available modes of transport, commuters place emphasis on “punctuality of service, levels of crowding, distance from the station and the security of trains” (NHTS, 2014: 8).

Trains are often overcrowded, and underpoliced. However, the major problem is that Metrorail trains have been flawed by the constant lack of structure in terms of schedules. Even though a timetable is provided on their website, the findings of the NHTS (2014) revealed that the trains do not show up and 37.8% of train users claimed it was not available. 

Mini-bus taxis 

In South Africa, there is an abundance of the low capacity vehicles (16-seater mini-bus taxis), which provide a door-to-door service and flexibility to many commuters.

This mode of transportation is more accessible than trains, due to the route and network flexibility (NHTS, 2018). However, several mini-bus taxis operate without licenses and, in some cases, they are driven by unlicensed drivers. This has been followed by complaints from commuters, who are affected by the violence associated with this transport mode (Mtizi, 2017).

The driving behavior of most taxi drivers is usually reckless as they have a habit of breaking most of the rules of the road and taxi fares are not stagnant, but alternate due to peak time and weather.

In this industry, there are no strict laws or rules to guide their activity, and as there are issues with government officials owning taxis, regulation is not prioritised.

There are high rates of sexual harassment reported from taxi drivers as well as high rates of traffic crimes committed. 

Thus, law enforcement needs to be held more accountable during road blocks so that they can actually enforce the laws (Mtizi, 2017). Additionally, police officers have a tendency of setting up illegal road blocks in order to collect money from road users. 

Moreover, the increase in the number of traffic offenders getting off using bribes is another government challenge. Therefore, Barret (2008) argues that weak enforcement of traffic regulations, vehicle inspection, driver behavior, and traffic management is a common practice in many African cities (Barret, 2008).


Complications with the bus service are largely attributed to infrequent bus service during off-peak hours (Mtizi, 2017).

Mitizi (2017) argues that bus services do not cover certain routes leaving commuters with the option to walk long distances or use another form of transport to get to their destination (Mtizi 2017).

However, buses are regarded as a safer option when compared to the other modes of transport. For the average commuter, these challenges translate to longer travel time which has a significant impact on their transport costs.

Additionally, the availability of travel information for all the modes of transport in South Africa continues to be a challenge.

Therefore, there is a need for greater regulation in this industry as most issues raised by commuters in the NHTS (2014) highlighted the unavailability of policies and universal guidelines that facilitate information sharing among the different role-players in the public transport sector.

Most of the modes of transport available in South Africa are ill-maintained and old, making them a hazard to people and the environment. Buses have a speed limit and they operate at low speed for long hours. However, Minibus taxis operators cause noise pollution as they usually call and hoot for passengers (Mtizi, 2017). Many public transport operators are ignorant towards environmental consciousness and this is a grave challenge for future public transport in South Africa. 

The cost and availability of fuel is a critical challenge for public transport in South Africa. Mtizi (2017) annotates that access to fuel at an affordable price is a crucial factor in transportation and is politically very sensitive. “Fuel costs commonly account for 10–40 percent of overall vehicle operating costs” (Starkey et al., 2001: 37).

Fuel is a determinant of the fare paid for the transport service and when adjusted, it mostly affects the passengers. “Fuel levies and taxes, which also affect fuel price, are used for the road maintenance and improvement, connoting the existence of them is a necessity” (Mtizi 2017: 5).


Public transport enables many economic and societal activities. Therefore, the disparity in levels of efficient and affordable public transport provision for those who are in the lower income range of earners is one of the key challenges that require responding to. 

In the 21 years of the new dispensation, solutions to public transport challenges in South Africa need to be tackled contextually and these solutions are presented as follows as according to Mthimkhulu (2017):

  1. There needs to be wide-ranging planning that increases accessibility and provides an integrated transport system for people located in rural areas. People located in remote areas require less motorised forms of transport, highlighting the importance of strengthening non-motorised transport. Mtimkhulu (2017) postulates that the emphasis on using vehicles such as bicycles can improve access of people in rural areas. This scholar further annotates that cycling will not require a large investment in infrastructure, and with the advantage of being environmentally friendly it is an important option to consider.
  2. In the South African minibus taxi industry, stringent guidelines must to be put in place for taxi drivers. There needs to be a taxi driver registry, indicating the licenses (valid licenses), the roadworthiness of the vehicle; drivers should require training in terms of defensive driving and first aid training (Mthimkhulu, 2017).  This scholar further propagates that, with the increase in road accidents, drivers need to be aware of how to save passengers’ lives and be accountable to their passengers. The policy should also include GPS devices placed on taxis, to monitor speed, and driving behaviour.
  3. Mbara (2006) notes that the local authorities have the responsibility to provide infrastructure and services to residents in urban areas. The location of physical infrastructure such as houses, industries and commercial centers have implications on transport costs. Thus, Mbara (2006) further argues that the appropriate land use planning policies that integrate residential and employment places will significantly solve some of the public transport challenges. Lastly, transport infrastructure usually takes place after the development of an area. Therefore, developments need to be alongside already existing infrastructure as this will reduce the need for huge capital investments required to build transport infrastructure.


This paper has indicated that several pressing issues will need to be addressed for a more inclusive, accessible, and effective system of public transport to exist in South Africa.

It also identified the challenges related to public transport and it identified amicable solutions to public transport problems in the South African context.

It must be noted that there is a need for better integration of social outcomes within public transport policy at the strategic tactical and operational levels. 

This paper concludes by arguing that with access to emerging transport infrastructure and technologies, South Africa can become the test-bed and breeding ground for tomorrow’s urban transport systems. New mass transit systems can be introduced to replace or work alongside existing services.

Cape Town and Johannesburg have been successful in implementing Bus Rapid Transit services that work together with existing public transport services.

This goes to show that it is possible to accommodate a range of transport types to account for all means of public transport services and in future, we hope to see the same in the Durban, eThekwini Municipality.


Aropet, R (2017). Southern African solutions to public transport challenges. 36th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2017) ISBN Number: 978-1-920017-73-6.

Barret, A. K. a. F., 2008. Stuck in Traffic: Urban Transport in Africa, s.l.: Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic.

Jennings, G. (2015). Public Transport Interventions and Transport Justice in South Africa: A Literature and Policy Review.

Khosa, M. M. (1995). Transport and popular struggle in South Africa. Antipode,27(2), 167-188.

Mbara, T. C., 2006. Coping with demand for urban passenger’s transport in Zimbabwe: Challenges and Options, Harare: University of Zimbabwe.

Mthimkhulu, N., (2017). Southern African solutions to public transport challenges. 36th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2017) ISBN Number: 978-1-920017-73-6.

Mtizi, C., (2008).  Southern African solutions to public transport challenges.  36th Southern African Transport Conference (SATC 2017) ISBN Number: 978-1-920017-73-6.

National Household Travel Survey 2014. 2016. Statistics South Africa.

Statistics South Africa, 2014, National Household Travel Survey, February to March 2013, Statistical release P0320.

Thomas, P.D., (2016). Public Transportation in South Africa: Challenges and Opportunities.
Walters, J. (2008). Overview of public transportation policy developments in South Africa. Research in Transportation Economics, 22, 98-108.

Walters, J., 2014. Public transport policy implementation in South Africa: quo vadis? original research. Journal of Transport and Supply Chain Management, 8(1), pp.1-10.