Bus rapid transit: so far, so good

12 October 2009

Laden with shopping bags, a woman disembarks at the Ellis Park East Station to make her way to her little Bertrams home, just a stone’s throw away.

In passing she greets an acquaintance and her child, leisurely strolling up the station ramp in the opposite direction, the hurry in their step reserved for when they disembark at their final destination in Thokoza Park, Soweto, which they call home – after all, there are enough buses to take them home should they miss this one.

Volunteers are on hand to assist passengers with queries. And sure enough, another bus is already rounding the corner at the bottom of Bertrams Drive, ready to take this one’s place in the next minute or two.

This is Johannesburg’s new Rea Vaya bus rapid transit (BRT) system in action, and it looks and feels first-class, say commuters.

The two red articulated buses – travelling in opposite directions – are docked at the station simultaneously, and people move with ease through the ticketing and boarding process, with volunteers on hand to assist passengers with queries.

About 850 pairs of feet walk through Ellis Park East Station daily. It is not the busiest station on the Rea Vaya trunk route; this label is reserved for Thokoza Park, where commuters numbers top about 1 500 a day.

First month

It is barely 40 days into operations for Johannesburg’s BRT system, and numbers remain steady at about 12 000 passengers a day, says Rea Vaya project manager, Jacques van Zijl.

“The demand on the trunk route is very good. All our buses are well utilised.”

Rea Vaya is also offering services to and from Orlando and Ellis Park stadiums on an events basis, Van Zijl confirms.

The road this far has not been without its speed bumps. The biggest challenge is for buses to stick to their timetables, he admits. Not all of the BRT lanes have been completed, and in some parts of the city Rea Vaya buses still have to make use of normal traffic lanes.

“We are trying to mitigate this problem. Johannesburg metro police will be introducing contra-flow lanes [for the buses] in the Diepkloof area and in Noord Street towards Fashion Square and adding pointsmen.”

Van Zijl says the problem with the stations doors will soon be a thing of the past, too. At the moment, station ambassadors open the doors as the door operating system interfered with the bus system. All buses are being fitted with new technology which will allow the driver to open the station doors from inside the bus, without any interference.

Taxi drivers on board

The 40 buses currently being used on the trunk and circular inner city routes are solely driven by 75 former taxi drivers, all hand-picked and trained over a one-month period by skilled Metrobus instructors. And judging by the ease and speed with which they are coming up to the stations, being a Rea Vaya bus driver is just another job in the driving seat.

Not so, indicates a group of off-duty drivers catching up on some gossip between shifts. Driving the Rea Vaya buses is a pleasure compared to their past taxi-driving jobs. And they had no problem finding their bus-driving feet, although some still find station docking a bit of a challenge.

On board, the drivers switch to the latest in technology, with access to a GPS system, panic buttons, route and destination screens, a public address system and CCTV cameras.

An additional feature of this high-tech system is sure to thrill their old taxi driving hearts: referred to as the Automatic Passenger Management System (APMS), drivers will also be able to communicate and manipulate traffic signals, switching red lights to green, lengthening the period for green lights, even shortening the period for a red light – all so that they are able to run their buses exactly on schedule.

The APMS has been fitted to all the vehicles and will be fully operational in about two months’ time when the back office and control centre becomes operational, to be run from the Joburg Roads Agency offices in Sauer Street, confirms Van Zijl.

Not on board

Unfortunately, co-operation from Johannesburg’s motorists and taxis is not good, he says. They use the BRT lanes all the time and sneak back after they have been directed out by the metro police. And in the inner city, vehicles are parked at almost all the stations, forcing buses to load and off-load in the middle of the road, he says.

Traffic signaling, lane painting and signage also still need attention. “We have a long way to go with law enforcement and the rest.”

For now, the BRT project office will focus its energy on fine-tuning the first phase of Rea Vaya so that it runs smoothly come the 2010 Fifa World Cup. This includes introducing feeder buses and complementary modes of transport.

“Going forward, the goal is to have phase 1A working properly by 2010.”

Source: City of Johannesburg