File picture: David Ritchie

Port Elizabeth - The Democratic Alliance has called for municipal control over commuter rail networks, saying cities are best placed to build and maintain transport infrastructure.

Speaking at a transport and mobility summit in Nelson Mandela Bay on Friday night, DA leader Mmusi Maimane said the report on poverty trends released this week by Stats SA painted a bleak picture of the daily lives of South Africans. According to this report, over 55 percent of South Africans - over 30 million - lived in poverty. 

"Economic exclusion and the social ills that go hand-in-hand with this are very much a product of our brutal and unjust past. This is especially true in public transport, because black and coloured South Africans were uprooted and dumped on the distant peripheries of towns and cities," he said.

Efficient, affordable, and reliable public transport networks was one very important way of undoing this legacy and loosening the grip of poverty. But like in many other areas of public policy, not nearly enough had been done to fight poverty with excellent public transport.

"Our cities can and should lead the drive for economic development in South Africa. Cities governed by the DA must be the shining example of how efficient, clean and responsive governments can attract investment and create jobs. And importantly, our cities are best placed to build and maintain transport infrastructure," Maimane said.

Efficient transport drove economic inclusion. It brought people to places of opportunity and  connected employers with the unemployed.

"I am hugely encouraged by the work our new metro mayors are doing in Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay in tackling the transport challenges they inherited in these cities.After just a year in office, the changes are already visible."

After staggering losses of R2 billion to fruitless expenditure in the past five years of the ANC government in Nelson Mandela Bay, it was hugely encouraging to know that the city would finally get the world class transport system it deserved, he said.

"But when it comes to radically altering the way a city’s people move about, you need a little more time. The people of the City of Cape Town, after 11 years under a DA government, are now seeing the benefit of long-term planning by a stable, capable local government when it comes to transport.

"The world-class MyCiti bus service already provides a rapid bus service as well as feeder service to thousands of Capetonians in areas such as Blouberg, Melkbosstrand, Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain, and Hout Bay, with routes now also rolling out in Philippi, Nyanga, and other poorly serviced parts of the city. And as the next five corridor routes are completed over the coming years, the Cape Town metro will become a far more accessible place for all its people," Maimane said.

The new initiative announced by the DA government in Cape Town earlier this year, in which job seekers would get free rides on the MyCiti network thanks to a subsidy from the city was another great way in which barriers to employment were being broken down.

"But bus routes will only get us so far. To truly unlock the potential of our cities we must get our people back onto trains in great numbers. Because, when properly run, commuter rail holds the key to connecting the bulk of our people with economic opportunities.

"Again, using Cape Town as an example, the deterioration of the Metrorail service has had a profound impact on the city’s ability to move people in and out of town. Over the past four years the number of passengers boarding trains daily in Cape Town has dropped by a staggering 43 percent. Delays, service interruptions, and crime have become so commonplace that many commuters have abandoned the trains for good, he said.

And these people all ended up on the roads in taxis, in buses and in cars, making Cape Town South Africa’s most congested city. Every day around 260,000 cars entered the city’s CBD. The roads simply could not cope with this volume of traffic.

"The solution is to allow the city to bring commuter rail into its transport plan by giving it control of the rail networks, the stations, and the land on which these lie. The metro government is in a far better position than Prasa [Passenger Rail Agency of SA] to get the most out of the city’s rail network and to run it properly. If our metros ran their own train systems then voters could hold us accountable for the success or failure to deliver a reliable train service. It makes no sense that such a vital public service is run by people who are totally unaccountable to the public. Public transport should be delivered by local governments, not by a distant unaccountable state-owned company," Maimane said.