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Moosajee: Creating Harmony Among Modes; Organizer of First BRT System in Africa
BY NOLAN HESTER, Special to Passenger Transport

Many public transportation officials learn to coexist with private taxi systems, which can view public systems as an economic threat. But few face the challenges laid out by Rehana Moosajee of Johannesburg, South Africa, who led the successful effort to build Africa’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system.

She spoke at the Oct. 2 General Session of the 2012 APTA Annual Meeting in Seattle, presented by APTA’s Business Members. Charles R. Wochele, chair, Business Member Board of Governors, presided at the session.

Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo appointed Moosajee in 2006 and gave her responsibility for creating a public transit system from scratch for the city’s 2010 hosting of soccer’s World Cup. The initial BRT line opened on time and on budget, but only after extensive negotiations with the mini-bus operators who carry 72 percent of the nation’s public transportation passengers.

The Rea Vaja BRT line currently covers only 16 miles, although plans call for it to eventually run about 185 miles. It transports one million passengers a month.

Moosajee said the mayor asked her: “How do we use the pressure that the eyes of the world will be upon us” to create a lasting legacy beyond “when the last whistle is blown.”

With a metropolitan population of seven million, she said, Johannesburg is a city where “wealth resides amidst extreme poverty.” The city continues to reflect its apartheid past: under the old laws, black people were not allowed to ride city buses when commuting from black areas to white areas. Mahatma Gandhi’s transformation as an equal-rights champion, she noted, began when he was thrown off such a bus.

Considered the third worst city in the world for commuting, she said, Johannesburg has a layout that forces many households to spend more than 10 percent of their income on transportation. The city has lots of heavy rail, a legacy of its mining economy, but “very little investment in public transportation.”

The black population remains dependent on an extensive network of 10,000 legal black-owned mini-buses (and many more unlicensed ones). Recognizing that the Rea Vaya bus line would directly affect mini-bus revenues, Moosajee said one of her first requests when she took the job was to sit down with the three top mini-bus fleet operators. The fierce business rivals refused to meet in the same room, so she had to meet with each one individually. 

“The historic response of the industry to anything the government puts on the table is to resist,” she said. Often operating in the legal shadows in the past, the mini-bus industry also had a “propensity to violence.”

Some government officials look down on the operators but, she said, they share the general population’s patriotic aspirations for South Africa. Given “a little respect,” she found that they could become allies.

The often contentious negotiations between Rea Vaya and the mini-bus associations eventually identified which operators would be most heavily affected by the new line. Rea Vaya paid to have 585 mini-buses crushed as scrap in areas where the BRT line would make mini-buses obsolete.

The ongoing shift has not been easy: those scrapped mini-buses, she said, “put food on the table” for operators and their families. Mini-buses remain an essential part of Johannesburg’s public transportation mix, so the city also has a recapitalization program to help mini-bus operators upgrade their aging, polluting vehicles.

Beyond dealing with the mini-buses, Moosajee said Rea Vaya’s launch involved an extensive community outreach program. For example, a youth volunteer group was so enthusiastic about the prospect of the new bus service that administrators decided to provide its members with special training to become “our ambassadors of the system.” After that, they fanned out into communities to explain the upcoming line’s operation and benefits.

In another case, she said, “The architects had come with a vision for a station and we said no.” First, they were told, they needed to meet with members of the community surrounding the proposed station. Too often, she said, “Communications is an afterthought: ‘We’ll get the operations going and do the other on the side.’”

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