Envisioning Cape Town’s Future (In)formal Public Transport
“I think that informal transit is not going to be thought of as informal for very long and that it will carry on being the bulk of our mobility or accessibility options and I think that you will start to see it in European countries very soon.”
Meet Sean Cooke. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town whose work focuses on transportation in the field of Civil Engineering. He is also engaged in the City of Cape Town’s urban development and transport sector as well as the United Nations’ Environment department as a transport research consultant. During the interview, I learned about his PhD work which focuses on finding solutions to finance improved accessibility to public transportation. He also explained his thoughts on informal transportation being the business model of the near future, and mentioned what fostered his personal interest in transportation growing up.
What do you think are the most important transportation-related issues Cape-Town faces today?
The way the city was set out by the Apartheid government. They didn’t have efficiency in mind when they segregated it by race. We are now trying to repair that and we just don’t have the money to completely reform the city the way we want to. We are trying to use existing capitalist property markets, financial mechanisms and government investments, but we are talking about reversing a century worth of infrastructure, segregation and property development. The way the city is set out is highly inefficient and breeds inequality, because that was the purpose of it back then during Apartheid, that was the purpose of the city, creating the city to benefit the rich, the whites, while pacifying the black people. That is the issue we are grappling every day.
The reason why it has been so difficult to try to roll that back is that the government has some tough choices to make, it never knows where its money is best placed, it has compromises that it has to make. A lot of what it wants to do is related to housing, it spends a lot of money on housing. Building people free houses is not cheap, but it is a vote winner for the government, they deliver houses and that person will pretty much almost always vote for that government.[…]
It has also been a problem that what we have been doing in transport and what the department of housing has done and the department of spatial planning has done have conflicted with each other. They haven’t been in alignment, they haven’t been working together. They have been in conflict because they each have different objectives. So if we are not aligning the objectives we are working against ourselves.
Do you see the collaboration of the departments slowly changing?
I think it has changed somewhat over the last few years, but not quick enough, and so my PhD is around how to accelerate that change. How to accelerate the change to integrated planning with equity as an objective. I think it is going to take very much of an interventionist approach.[…] I think that we as transport engineers and planners haven’t acknowledged the political and relational issues around trying to reform the transport system.[…]
What ends up happening is that politicians don’t like risk, anything new, innovative, or too much change, because that could be a risk, because if they spend money on something new and it fails, they could be accused of wasteful expenditure which sounds a lot like corruption. So they just keep on to the same thing they have been doing, because it’s safe, because they know it works and they don’t need to stick their heads out. So we need to, as engineers, acknowledge what the risks are of changing this structure to make the transport system better, more fair and we need to work out where those risks are and how we can eliminate those risks for the people who are involved in making those decisions.
Do you think informal transportation systems will cease to exist in the future?
I don’t think the differentiation between formal and informal is useful anymore. I had a guy from Germany who got in touch with me about an app he is building for a small bus-version of Uber. He essentially described a minibus taxi and he told me that was the future of transport. And I said yes, all of the characteristics of a minibus taxi are the characteristics that Uber has. It is on demand, adaptable, it can take you exactly where you want to go door to door. It is manoeuvrable, it is adaptable. It is weird to me that so many entities like the World Bank or these global entities from the Global North will tell us how problematic informal transport is but then tech startups from those same countries are trying to sell us those characteristics back.
But what minibus taxis are lacking is safety, when compared to Uber, right?
Yes, so the tech issue is a big one because the business model of minibus taxis makes them unsafe. The way that they work is that the owner of the vehicle is not the one who drives it. They say, I want 2000 Rand for renting my vehicle. So the driver drives like a maniac to make the 2000 Rand and whatever he gets on top of that he takes home as profit. If we change the business model of that into one where the driver is paid a salary, he has no incentive to speed, because he is paid a salary no matter what. The reason that the minibus taxis are profitable and our bus systems are not profitable at all, is because of that business model that they have. So we need to change the business model, but then to get them to do that, we need to offer them subsidies, we need to offer them incentives from the government. Part of that will be in money, some of it will be in infrastructure by taking away lanes from cars on the highway and giving them to minibuses only, but once we get to that system where they drive normally and act as they should, then they are the best option for public transport. Trains are cheaper to move many people, big buses are better for congestion in some of the inner city areas, but for the majority of the city, minibuses are still the most viable option. We will probably convert them to electric ones at some point. I don’t see what really is informal about them anymore.[…]
A minibus taxi is exactly the same, it’s a very large Uber(pool), that runs roughly in the same direction on the same road every so often. It has a lot of positive characteristics that most people don’t talk about. For example, children ride for half price, they don’t have to do that, they are a completely free market, they can charge whatever they want. Sometimes they allow elderly people to ride for free, especially if they are going to a hospital. They will take you on a short left, which is where you ask them to deviate from their route, for example, if you have lots of shopping and then you just pay them a little extra. There are a lot of characteristics which are really irrefutable about the business model that they have, they know their market and they know the community that they are serving. They have a lot of social capital, we want all of those characteristics to carry on into the new system, but we just want to deter them from the bad characteristics, the speeding, the danger, and we can.[…] I think that informal transit is not going to be thought of as informal for very long and that it will carry on being the bulk of our mobility or accessibility options and I think that you will start to see it in European countries very soon.
Why do you think transportation is an important field in the urban development sector?
There is a guy named Ed Glaeser, who is a fairly famous urban theorist/scholar and he said, if you break it down to the fundamentals, the purpose of a city is to maximise access to people, resources, and ideas. That’s why cities were created. The amalgamation of people is to put people, resources, and ideas as close to each other as possible. That’s access and access is generally the domain of transport. So I fundamentally think that transport is important, because that’s why we created cities, it was to have access. And at the moment the inefficient way in which we built our cities does actually mean that they are not accessible, defeating some of the points of the creation of our cities. I mean people are talking about flying in from rural areas to the cities every day with drone Ubers. Why have a city at all if you are flying into office every day? So I think that we need to acknowledge what the purposes of cities are.[…]
We need to improve the access, and we need to make that access equitable. Once transport people can do that, or acknowledge that it’s their purpose, that’s when I think they will take on the importance that they should have, but I also believe that transport shouldn’t be thought of as transport alone. I think you have to think about it as an overarching access system, because for too long transport engineers have said transport is important, but transport, housing, land uses, all of that, even digital now, are all part of the same problem, they are all solutions to the same problem really, around access.[…]
I don’t think that transport specifically should be singled out as more important than the others. I think of access as a problem that needs to be singled out as the problem we should all be trying to solve.
Do you think models of transportation which work well in other cities are able to be implemented in Cape Town?
Models don’t work in other cities. You can’t take a system from one city and put it into another city, it won’t work. You can take principles, or you can take lessons and take it across. So in Bogota, they learned that having a dedicated bus lane really makes a big difference, but is that the lesson we learned from them? No, we took the entire big system and the whole model, and it was a big failure. If we had only taken the lessons around ‘bus lanes are important, having a good governance system for the bus system is important’, all of those things, we could have created a system out of our existing public transport that would have been much better. I think people love a silver bullet solution[…] I believe academics are part of the problem, they love to push a utopian view. The world is chaotic and ugly and things don’t happen quickly. It’s all tiny incremental improvements on an existing system, so we just need to do that. One thousand, one million small incremental improvements in the same direction will get us to a better system, not a big shiny new model from somewhere else in the world. We have proven time and time again that those just don’t work, sadly.
What initially fostered your interest in transportation?
I have travelled quite a bit, my parents are backpackers, I grew up backpacking, I did a gap year, did a ton of backpacking. I love travelling and I love cities, but I couldn’t see any job that really entailed that. I’d heard some people talk about city planning, but that required you to do architecture in this country, and architecture requires you to do art, and I failed art. So I thought okay, fine I’ll go into civil engineering because I thought that was about developing cities, it’s not, it’s about creating concrete columns and buildings, but just so happens that transport is part of the civil engineering department. So in my third year, I was tempted to quit civil engineering, I wanted to leave to become a surgeon. I ended up doing an internship at a hospital- that wasn’t for me. Then in my second semester of my third year my supervisor Roger came in did one presentation about how transport systems are like the conduits of value of access within a city. How they really knit the city together and become the lifeblood of it and within one lecture I was like ‘this is what I’m supposed to do’, just overnight, and then from there I drifted far outside of engineering into policy and institutional structures, just kind of following the problem, which has taken me across a couple of different disciplines. So I have been lucky that my research group the ACC (African Centre for Cities) is very transdisciplinary, they essentially move with that model. They say: follow the problem, if that takes you into city planning then that’s fine, if it goes into economics, social sciences, just follow the problem, as long as you are still the best suited to solving the issue, as long as you are still skilled enough to do it then that’s the way to go. So I followed the problem and now I have no idea what discipline I’m in, but I am solving transport issues.
How do you think the future of urban planning in regards to transportation will be shaped by today’s generation?
I think it is going to be shaped hugely by this generation.[…] Essentially, the modernist phase was, everything should be rules, everything should abide by a regime, that’s when architecture got all concrete and function and rigour and transport went through the same thing. And then a lot of urban planning was that as well, everything must be rule-based everything must be gridded, but then it went into a postmodernist phase which is where actually people don’t like rules, people can’t be bullied into conformity. Planning should be a conversation, it should be a negotiation between the government, who have these very kind of macro-level objectives, and who have a much wider view and a much more long-term view, with the people who they are actually planning for, who have a more short-term view and who have viable opinions. Now transport hasn’t gotten to that stage yet, they haven’t gotten to that postmodernist interpretation of what planning should be. And I think that once you get to that postmodernist stage, that’s when a lot of the conversations around power dynamics and feminism and privilege, and race relations begin to be able to be incorporated into the conversation.[…]
The new generations are all aware of the practical implications of something like privilege. So when I talk about the fact that I have access to an Uber and a poor person doesn’t, that means that after dark I can have a full social life, and that person can’t because there are no minibuses running. That means that I have a privilege that entitles me to a much more full and well-rounded life, I have social engagement and a whole lot of other things. My income and transport infrastructure allows me that privilege, by having a more well-rounded life, a more well-rounded view of society also gives me capabilities that I can use to improve myself in my job, capabilities which that other person does not have. Understanding those nuances around privilege or capability as consequences of transport infrastructure is difficult to explain to people who have only ever designed transport with a computer model looking at dots on a screen. They’ve never had to engage with the very real human consequences, the career-stunting consequences of a lack of transport. Where I think younger people really do understand it. It is because it is very similar to conversations around race relations or gender equity.
You can apply a lot of the equal pay and gender rights conversations to transport and certain people have done it. And so I think those conversations are going to permeate into transport and I think there are going to be a lot of unhappy old white men because they are not going to understand what everyone is talking about. I think that this is going to be changing things. I co-founded the Young Urbanists society with a bunch of like-minded friends; we are all in transport planning, finance, or engineering and we all understand a lot of that more progressive conversation around these less rigid, less obvious consequences of how cities are built and the ways in which city making needs to change in order to make society more fair, more just. And I think that will be a major change in how things work.
I don’t think we can wait until people our age are in positions of power before those changes happen, and they have to happen now. And so I don’t think that I want to teach a lot of people and hope that they change the world one day. I’m going to take a very activist role, this is where a large debate is happening at the moment around the idea of being an activist-scholar, because academics are always seen as objective, but the real world is not objective, the real world has financial interests that are working against you.[…] Not all academics can be objective and neutral, there has to be a space for academic activism of being an interventionist scholar and I think the younger generations are far more open to being an interventionist or activist academic!