South Africa needs a pragmatic, integrated strategy for sustainable transport
Vishaal Lutchman, MD, Transport, Zutari

South Africa needs a pragmatic, integrated strategy to promote sustainable transport, according to Vishaal Lutchman, Managing Director, Transport, at leading consulting engineering and infrastructure advisory practice Zutari.

“We do not have a strategy around sustainable transport, yet we focused on granular technology solutions such as putting in the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles (EVs).”

Lutchman adds that while the emphasis tends to be on EVs in terms of sustainable transport, alternative fuel sources such as hydrogen offer potentially more cost-effective and viable alternatives. However, the viability is yet to be tested, especially as environmental considerations cannot be the only dimension of sustainable transport.

In mature economies, sustainable transport focuses on environmental concerns such as reduced emissions. A key focus in South Africa remains its socioeconomic and human impact. “For many developing countries in the Global South, transitioning to renewables may not be the number one item on their sustainability agenda. Rather, it may be how to raise employment levels while dealing with the systemic inequality inculcated by the colonisation project, which presents many legacy phenomena to deal with,” comments Lutchman.

He points out that the notion of sustainable transport is invariably raised without addressing it on any practical or easily implementable level. Sustainability is inevitably linked to the Just Energy Transition to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. However, transport is as much a management issue as it is about transformation.

For example, the taxi industry – which is responsible for transporting 80% of commuters in South Africa – is not only unsustainable but unregulated, resulting in clashes when alternative modes of transport such as e-hailing and passenger rail are introduced as part of a holistic, integrated transport plan.

“The taxi industry grew out of the need for a solution due to the lack of public transport to connect the bulk of the population to the mainstream economy. While it has fulfilled that need, the imbalance in the overall transport system means we have unsafe vehicles on the road posing a danger to commuters, who have no alternative but to use taxis,” says Lutchman. There needs to be options allowing for natural competition and keeping prices in check.

Sustainable transport also means affordable transport, and here the taxi industry in particular is at the mercy of the volatile oil price associated currency risks which has seen fuel costs rise locally, adding further strain to commuters’ budgets in terms of transport expenses. Increased urbanisation, combined with a young, growing population, has also skewed South Africa’s commuter profile in favour of the taxi industry.

“It is a problem as the government of the day feels held hostage by the taxi industry and its demands. Drivers and commuters have a voice in scale and the capability to manipulate outcomes,” argues Lutchman. “The government is finding it hard to integrate the taxi industry into a national intermodal system, but it needs to be done. Ultimately it needs to be done decisively to meet the future transport needs of a developing economy, combined with a growing population, so that it can be sustainable.” The enabling issues are complex and must be dealt, such as an integrated plan, funding, and dealing with socio-economic initiatives.

Lutchman highlights: “The issues we are dealing with regarding transport are far bigger than an academic approach to sustainability. Our collective mandate is to deliver safe and reliable transport for ourselves (the public and private sector) with a government that has to lead its people towards pragmatic future-proofed solutions while dealing with current crises,” concludes Lutchman.