Saving lives while securing livelihoods: Limiting access to the available means of mobility is devastating to the poor

Striking the balance between saving lives and securing livelihoods has been at the centre of the governments’ response to the COVID–19 Pandemic. As part of the focus on saving lives, (and preventing health system overrun), strict measures pertaining to travel on public transport modes have been imposed and will probably prevail for some time to come. Lockdown measures have resulted in a significant reduction in travel demand and will (as we previously indicated) take a long time (12 – 18 months) to recover to March 2020 levels, if it recovers sustainably to that level at all.

It follows that Lockdown and phased lockdown relief (in terms of the government’s risk adjusted strategy) have already / and will continue to produce significant levels of over- supply in the public transport sector (including the minibus taxi industry). With no clear time horizons on the cards it is only logical to assume that operators may temporarily reduce supply to better match significantly reduced demand. This in itself has already had and will continue to have business viability and livelihood implications for operators, drivers, support staff and their families.

What is of concern to us in this article however, is the effect of lockdown and now level 4 public transport restrictions on those who rely on public transport and in particular the minibus taxi as their only affordable means of accessing essential household goods and services.

Over the period October 2017 to June 2019, ODA worked with the City of Cape Town on the piloting of a Transport Operating Company (TOC) model in Mitchells Plain a city of +_ 400 000 people more or less 35 km to the South East of Cape Town. One of the participating associations held the operating licenses to provide a typical 5 -7 km one -way feeder / distributor service to the people of Tafelsig and Lost City two areas in which many residents survive on the social grant.

During the nearly two- year period that we worked on the TOC pilot we undertook two passenger surveys to, amongst other, determine the average number of weekday and weekend day trips that residents of these communities make to Mitchells Plain town centre as well as the reasons for these trips (see paper presented at SATC 2019 for full details of survey design*).   

The graphs below compiled from these surveys tell an interesting story.  


Close to half of trips made were for shopping purposes, illustrating the absence of retail shops in residential areas and the need to travel to town centre to do essential shopping.

45% of the trips made were to do shopping – it follows that if you reside in a neighbourhood where access to grocery stores and street trade is limited and you budget your household spending on a week- by week or day – by -day basis, you need to make regular, at least a once a week trip to that part of the township where you can access basic household goods (food) mainly from street traders who operate in the high foot fall corridors and squares in and around the transport hub.    

A second surprising survey result is that more than half the people surveyed make the trip from home to town centre every day of the week, (i.e. at least 5 times per week), while the other half make use of the minibus taxi service between 1 and 4 times per week.  Friday stands out as the busiest travel day of the week. This combined with the finding that 45% of trips are made for shopping purposes makes for interesting reading.


More than half of the passengers are regular customers, using the service 5+ days a week.


The other half of users use the service less regularly (1-4 days a week). Based on passengers’ declared travel pattern: Friday is the busiest day; weekdays have relatively similar profiles with a minor slump on Thursday; fewer trips on Saturday, and very limited traffic on Sunday.

The story of Tafelsig and Lost City Mitchells Plain could be the story of the people of Makaza in Khayelistsha, or the story set in a neighbourhood of Mamelodi. The fact of the matter is that the taxi industry does a lot more that shuttle commuters* over 20 – 40 km trip distances to and from their places of work. It provides poor people with access to basic needs. The poor in Mitchells Plain do not shop at the Promenade Mall, they buy from the fishmonger, the fruit and veg vendor and airtime trader at town centre with whom they can bargain.

Did we take the travel demand patterns of the of the poor internal to settlements like Mitchells Plain and Mamelodi into account when we designed lockdown and post lockdown containment measures or did we simply apply a one -size- fits- all rule based on containing township to city travel?     

Is this not perhaps one of the reasons why the pressure on access to food parcels is so severe even in areas where social grant beneficiaries reside?

Are the measures that have been introduced to date sufficient to protect passengers, drivers and sliding door operators as we head into the first phase of increased travel demand? (level 4).

What is the thinking regarding the relaxation of regulations pertaining to public transport modes, as we progress to levels 3 and 4 (with specific reference to the minibus taxi as the mode that carries up to 65% of people in some of our major metros?)

Are level 4 measures here to stay and if so, are they going to be sufficient?                          

*Measuring the evolution of passenger satisfaction following the introduction of scheduled services: The case of the 7th Avenue minibus-taxi association in Mitchells Plain

* the term commuter is used to refer to peak hour residence to place of work public transport users


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