Transport remains biggest challenge for World Cup
Bafana Bafana’s defeat and the contentious vuvuzela aside, the World Cup is being hosted with great success by South African cities. But the logistical challenges of an event of this size are such that there will always be pressure on different systems in the host cities, and criticism to some degree.
Unsurprisingly, fans have not yet been caught up in a machete race war, as suggested by Britain’s Daily Star, and England’s team was not icked off by highly poisonous snakes in Rustenburg, as suggested by Britain’s The Sun.
For reasonable people, averting these threats is no real measure of success in the hosting of the World Cup — although readers of Britain’s The Sun and Daily Star might be relieved. However, it is interesting to monitor where the fault lines might lie, to show up areas of greatest pressure.
Given SA’s already well-developed tourism infrastructure and the lower than expected number of visitors, accommodation (as measured by number of beds available) has been more than adequate, and there has been little concern voiced by visitors about either availability or value for money offered by the country. This can’t be taken for granted in the expensive and often overpriced cities of Europe, the US or Asia, where such international events usually take place.
Despite the scepticism of many business travellers, the airport infrastructure is also holding up well, as is the brand-spanking- new, state-of-the-art Gautrain, whizzing across Gauteng with such aplomb that Joburgers rushed to try it out — just for the heck of it — over its first weekend. Stadium security too, despite a few wildcat strikes by stewards after early games in eThekwini and Cape Town, seems to be pretty well managed and coping with match-day pressures.
It is transport to and from the stadiums, and perhaps surprisingly in the biggest host city, Johannesburg, where the greatest criticism of hosting the World Cup has arisen.
Given the need to prioritise basic services, transport at the local level is a budget-sapping luxury item for municipalities in SA — if not across the world — despite its much-needed multiplier benefits for residents.
Despite this, a cash-strapped Johannesburg has forked out considerable sums for its impressive, but controversial Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, which is still, in large part, under construction. Pity the city, then, when its opportunity to showcase the BRT was ruined by a strike by drivers objecting to a shift change.
This unfortunate occurrence caused further delays for fans using an already creaking and somewhat overwhelmed transport network on match days in the city, confirming (for those in the city who might have cared to listen) what many local fans had already been grumbling about for some time — Johannesburg’s inability to ensure traffic flow to and from Soccer City. This failure resulted in the disappointing sight of a significant number of empty seats during the opening ceremony, blamed by Fifa on transport problems, compounded by a general failure of many local match-goers to leave their cars at home and use public transport, despite being urged to do so by officials.
One might also be forgiven for wondering if the problem of empty seats was not perhaps also caused by problems with Fifa’s absurdly complicated and otherwise problematic ticketing system.
Transport problems have been evident in some other host cities, too, notably at Nelson Mandela Bay’s (Port Elizabeth’s) opening game between Greece and South Korea, which saw many thousands of seats unoccupied. Fans were urged to use the park-and- ride bus service provided by the city, but many complained of a sporadic and somewhat unreliable service with long delays.
In preparation for the World Cup, more than R40bn was spent on public transport infrastructure, including: integrated rapid public transport networks; freeway expansion and road upgrades; an additional 110 buses and 300 midi-buses acquired for the World Cup; and some 2000 train coaches refurbished.
This will be, arguably, one of the most important legacies of the event — the transport ministry expects that by 2020 more than 85% of any city’s population will live within a kilometre or closer to an integrated rapid public transport network feeder.
But there remains an irony that for now, at least, it is the largest of hosts, Johannesburg, that has come under the most pressure regarding its transport arrangements. While it might seem intuitive that the city, with its extensive infrastructure, would hold up better than others, it was the huge demand on this infrastructure that meant the system did not cope as well. Could the city have done more? Even sophisticated US cities, such as Los Angeles and Atlanta during the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games, were under serious strain. And in Johannesburg’s defence, moving a mass of fans based in the north down a narrow transport corridor to Soccer City stadium in Soweto in the south is a geographical challenge that would leave the best logistical experts scratching their heads.
The key problem, of course, is that this scenario was never planned for in SA. Apartheid’s transport planners never dreamed the middle class, much less a horde of international fans, would be queuing up to watch soccer in the middle of Soweto. It was only ever thought that those in Soweto would be queuing in the opposite direction — for transport to apply their labour in Johannesburg’s centre and north.
It has become clear that the biggest challenge of SA’s World Cup was improving match-day transport in most cities, essentially prying middle-class South Africans and some tourists out of cars and on to public transport — the buses provided by host cities as well as trains. The Gautrain achieved this in the minds of the well-heeled, shedding the working-class stigma of rail transport, and thus not only remoulding international perceptions of SA’s economic infrastructure, but also local perceptions.
While host cities have become more efficient at moving fans to and from stadiums on match days, success will ultimately require a change in the mind-set of the middle class — a leap of faith that public transport is safe and, although not perfect, efficient enough to make it worth abandoning the drive to a stadium in a personal vehicle.
If this were to be achieved, even in part, it could lead to an uptake in the us e of new BRT and other transport systems in cities after the World Cup and, in so doing, assist cities to pay for and sustain them (no small cost) as well as reducing the number of private vehicles on city roads.
It would also assist in getting people across race and class to travel together, and so further integrate our cities and living areas. Oh to have people from all walks of life waiting together at a bus shelter, complaining about the heat, the cold, or when the next bus might arrive, just like any other decent city.