Opinion: Using public transport to reduce Urban Earth’s carbon emissions associated with business travel

Submitted by: Amanda Botes, Tuesday, October 29, 2013

<p>Using public transport and non-motorised transport can help your organisation to reduce their carbon emissions associated with staff commuting (Image Source: Amanda Botes).</p>

Using public transport and non-motorised transport can help your organisation to reduce their carbon emissions associated with staff commuting (Image Source: Amanda Botes).

As a company that advises other organisations on how to reduce their impact on the environment, we at Urban Earth often experiment with different strategies to reduce our own impact so that we can better understand the feasibility of different approaches and advise our clients accordingly. Like many office based organisations, business travel is our highest source of greenhouse gas emissions at Urban Earth. One of the strategies that we have employed to reduce our carbon footprint has therefore been to use non-motorised transport, public transport and carpooling when travelling for business. Whilst some of my colleagues use bicycles to reduce their emissions associated with transport, being a new bicycle rider makes this a scary option for me. I therefore use a combination of minibus taxis, walking and carpooling for business travel.   

My minibus taxi experience

Our offices are in Glenwood, a suburb just outside the Durban city centre, so catching a minibus taxi into town, where many of our meetings are, is quite easy and quick. Growing up in Glenwood, and using minibus taxis and buses as a student made me become familiar with the taxi routes into town, to the beachfront and local shopping centres. Getting to meetings further out of town is more challenging and I am yet to figure out where I can catch a taxi to get to Pinetown for instance. For meetings outside of town I tend to share rides with my colleagues.

Whilst there is an existing bus transport system in Durban I often end up taking minibus taxis as they tend to operate more frequently on the routes that I take. The minibus taxi system is informal and learning how it works is an adventure in itself! There are no official timetables or route maps on the internet, local noticeboards or in pamphlets. The only way to find out where to catch a taxi to your destination is to ask someone that uses the system. This is however one of the benefits of using public transport as I get to interact with people that I wouldn’t usually interact with.

Glenwood is a well serviced suburb with many facilities and services within walking distance. Living 1km from our offices makes my commute on foot a short one, although up a steady incline, and on most days my husband drops me off at the office on his way to work.

The benefits of using the minibus taxi system 

As someone who doesn’t enjoy driving, when I travel into the inner-city for work by minibus taxi, I don’t have to deal with the stress of driving in the congested inner-city or looking for a parking. It only costs me R5 to get into the city centre from our offices by minibus taxi and I don’t have to pay for parking in the inner-city parkades, which are anywhere between R10-R20 an hour, or pay for metred parking where I risk getting a parking ticket if a meeting takes longer than expected.

A pedestrian walkway in Durban’s inner-city near the Workshop in the Priority Zone area (Image Source: Amanda Botes)

When using public transport one can end up walking quite fair distances as well. Walking in the inner-city has also allowed me to see more of our city and be aware of changes that are taking place. For instance I have noticed the improvement in city infrastructure in the Priority Zone Area in Durban, a project that is funded by eThekwini Municipality, and witnessed people enjoying public spaces in the city that have been revitalised. Walking also helps to keep up my fitness levels.

Walking has always been a part of my daily commuting experience which I have enjoyed because it provides me with an opportunity to get fresh air, think about things without getting interrupted and interact with people. On the negative side, cars often don’t give way to pedestrians and I have to be extra vigilant when crossing intersections even when the “green man” is flashing.  Historically, most of Durban’s roads have been planned for the needs of motorists, and pedestrians often have to walk on narrow pavements or none at all.

Perceptions of minibus taxi use

In a middle-class environment most of my friends are quite shocked to hear that I use minibus taxis and walk in the Durban inner-city on my own. Many of my friends consider it unsafe to do either in Durban. When I attend meetings people are often perplexed when I say that I have taken a taxi to the meeting. Working in a professional environment, many colleagues think I have caught a metred taxi and only when I say “minibus” taxi they realise I have used public transport.

In addition in South Africa many view public transport and non-motorised transport as only for people who cannot afford private cars. A former University colleague said to me at one meeting “I have graduated from using minibus taxis since my university days.” Having a private car is what most South Africans aspire to.  On the other hand other people I interact with say that they would use public transport if it was more efficient and safe but have not attempted to use the existing public transport system for many years.

Are we there yet?

One of the frustrating things about using a minibus taxi is that unlike a bus, if the taxi is not full the driver will make stops along the way looking for passengers which can add on to the expected time of the journey. I therefore usually factor in extra time when travelling by minibus taxi to avoid being late. In addition because there are no official timetables one can end up waiting for a while for a taxi. Due to the informality of the minibus taxi system there are also some inconsistencies with the quality of drivers and vehicles. I have mostly been satisfied with my experience using minibus taxis but there have been one or two occasions where I have been unhappy due to the quality of the driving or the standard of the vehicle. I have also been coaxed once by a conductor to use a minibus taxi that I would not usually take to get to my destination. I ended up where I wanted to go but only after going on a detour and seeing most of Durban’s inner-city!  Another negative some of my colleagues complain about is the music played, but in my experience the music is not too loud and I quite enjoy it.

Even though I do try and walk and use public transport where I can, I still have access to a private car if  there isn’t an appropriate taxi route or I think it will take me too long to get to my destination using public transport.  For the majority of South Africans, however, using minibus taxis and walking is their only means of transport and improvements in public transport services as well as non-motorised transport infrastructure in Durban and other South Africa cities would make a significant improvement to their quality of life. 

It is encouraging to know that eThekwini Municipality is drawing inspiration from the City of Cape Town’s “MyCiTi” and the City of Johannesburg’s “Rea Vaya” bus rapid transport systems and is working with the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) to develop an Integrated Rapid Public Transport Network system that incorporates both rail and bus transportation. I am excited about these developments and am looking forward to using this new public transport system that aims to provide efficient and affordable transport for Durban’s residents.

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Amanda Botes