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Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau recently pointed out that South African society has a tendency to criminalise the poor. And he is right. Entrepreneurs trying to make a living by selling goods on the side of the road are prosecuted, and people without basic services such as electricity are penalised for connecting themselves illegally. There are many ways in which poor South Africans are given a raw deal, and one of these is the transport facilities available to them, namely the mini-bus taxi industry.

Mini-bus taxis are the transport mode of choice for the majority of South Africans, they offer flexibility and a price that suits the needs of their customers. They also go when and where their customers need them. However, the safety of the service provided is, in the majority of cases, shocking and the dangerous driving tactics due to inter-driver competition are simply staggering. Traffic infringements such as driving on pavements and driving on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic are an all too common feature of the South African rush hour.

One of these days a class action law suit will be taken against the Department of Transport and the taxi federations for allowing the taxi industry to defy the rules of the road, and for enabling a culture of general disregard for the traffic regulations to take root amongst the driving public. This is no idle day dream. Laws such as the Consumer Protection Act have opened the way for class actions to take place in South Africa as evidenced by the judicial go-ahead given to the silicosis class action suit against the gold mining industry.

But why wait for a class action law suit? Steps can be taken now to professionalise the mini-bus taxi industry and make it accountable for its actions for the sake of taxi passengers and other road users.

Rectifying this situation requires the business model for the taxi industry to change. A priority should be that taxi-drivers receive a set wage instead of their income being based on the number of passengers they carry a day. Fleet management and vehicle tracking systems should also be installed in all taxis. These systems can be used for the benefit of taxi owners to monitor their drivers’ behaviour, to optimise their vehicles’ logistics and to manage the maintenance of their vehicles. The Department of Transport in turn can fulfil their mandate to the public and ensure that licences are only made available to taxi operators making use of fleet management and vehicle tracking systems. Initially the taxi owners’ profit will take a hit, but a safer, well-regulated taxi industry will attract more customers. Just look at the popularity of Uber.

Going geospatial is a win-win situation for all parties: the mini-bus taxi industry, the Department of Transport and above all the general public. It will be cheaper all round too, to invest time and money into upgrading the mini-bus taxi industry instead of upgrading existing roads and expanding the road network. However, taking the first step requires the powers-that-be to decide that South Africa’s poor are worthy of having safe public transport.

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