by Andrew Ngozo


A Viable Public-transport System

Mention the phrase ‘public transport’ to many people and you will hear all sorts of stories. Most of these are tales told of crowded buses, trains and taxi ranks. Some of us have never been on a public-transport system before, except for being in an aeroplane –which is a luxury mode of transport for many Africans. Yet, governments across the continent and the world are advising people to use this mode of transportation on a daily basis in order to have less congested roads that can be used for the transportation of goods. In the Gauteng area, for example, there is a high-speed rail system that runs between Pretoria and Johannesburg. However, since 2010, the highways and byways of this bustling metropolis remain a nightmare. This then raises the question: is public transport really a viable option when compared with rather using one’s vehicle on the country’s roads?


According to Rachel Kyte, vice-president of sustainable development at the World Bank, good

public-transport systems are an essential part of safe, clean and affordable transport as a component of development. “From a social perspective, public transport is often the only means of transport for the poor. Without it, they would be able to look at work opportunities only within walking distance of their homes, so public transport improves their livelihood opportunities. It also gives them greater access to education, health care and recreation. For senior citizens, people with disabilities and children, public transport is also their main means of mobility,” she explains. From an urban-mobility perspective, public transport is far more efficient than personal motor vehicles when it comes to use of road space and energy consumption.


Key Features of an Integrated System
A good public-transport system must be easy and convenient to use, and must also be fast, safe, clean and affordable. Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong are known for their excellent transport systems. Smaller cities like Lyon in France and Curitiba in Brazil also have very good systems, shares Rachel. More recently, León in Mexico, Pereira in Colombia, Lagos in Nigeria, and Ahmedabad in India have developed good systems, with many more in the offing. A key feature is that these systems integrate multiple technologies, such as metro rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, and basic bus services. A common ticket or fare card serves all the systems, making it easy for passengers to transfer from one mode to the other. Passenger information systems enable users to know when the next service is due and to understand the routes easily, and the high frequency of service reduces the hassle of a long wait for the next bus or train.


However, there have been barriers to sustainable public transport in developing countries. These problems differ from region to region. Says Rachel: “An important barrier is the historical industry structure. Many countries in Africa [Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa], Latin America [Colombia and Peru] and Asia [the Philippines and Indonesia] have bus systems that are owned and operated by a large number of small operators. Meanwhile, other countries in Asia [India and China], North America [the USA and Canada] and Europe [France] have a single publicly owned entity that provides all transport services. Experience shows that neither of these is the best for ensuring a good public-transport system.” Having a large number of small operators allows for low-cost services, but the quality is poor due to severe competition. Other disadvantages include dangerous driving practices, pollution, and a tendency to have too much service on profitable routes and virtually no service on nonprofitable routes. Meanwhile, single publicly owned entities may offer a higher quality of service but costs tend to be high and the quantity of service is often inadequate.

Another barrier is the financial sustainability of mass-transit systems, especially metro rail. These cost a lot to build as well as to operate, and so the operating costs are not recovered through fares. It is essential to look at additional revenue sources beyond fares in order to sustain such systems. The social image of public transport is another barrier. “In developing country cities, as income levels go up, people like to demonstrate their enhanced income status by shifting from public modes to personal motor vehicles. The public-transport system is seen as the only option for people who cannot afford their own vehicle. As a result, people tend to look down on someone who is using public transport. Getting the image of public transport right is a challenge,” notes Rachel.

The World Bank’s View
The primary contribution of the World Bank has been in providing funds for urban-transport projects. According to                   Rachel, between 1999 and 2011, the World Bank supported over 80 urban-transport projects in different parts of the world, with commitments amounting to about USD10.5 billion. These projects are delivering results. For instance, in Bogotá, Colombia, approximately 27% of the city’s public-transport demand benefits from the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system supported by the World Bank. According to 2009 data, riding TransMilenio results in an average time saving of 32% or 20 minutes per trip when compared with the traditional bus system. This is a saving of more than 10 hours a month for the average commuter. Over the years, the programme has also led to a decrease in accident rates of about 90% in the corridors where the system operates.


The World Bank also contributes to capacity development and knowledge-sharing so as to facilitate the design and implementation of viable projects. “We have found that urban transport is complex and requires an appreciation, at leadership levels, of its multiple dimensions. Mere building of facilities is not enough and a more comprehensive approach is needed. Our Leaders in Urban Transport Planning Programme seeks to develop capacity among senior policy-makers and planners in cities, provincial governments and national governments, so they can adopt a more holistic view of transport planning within a city,” she states. As living standards continue to increase, the demand for transport also rises. In developing countries and emerging economies, the solution seems to be to increase on-road transport – private cars, buses and other shared motor vehicles.

The World Bank supports good management of transport systems, concludes Rachel. There are several well-managed public agencies that the Bank has supported. “Nonetheless, our experience has been that systems where a public agency is involved in planning and regulation, with services contracted to private operators under well-defined contracts, work best. Therefore, we would recommend such arrangements wherever the existing arrangement is not working well.” 



Physical Address​

61 Herderkruin Crescent |

Woodhill Estate | Pretoria |

South Africa

Postal Address

PO BOX 66650






Tel: +27 667 6623

Tel: +27 12 667 6623

Fax: +27 12 667 6624