In 2008, the National Department of Transport launched a programme to upgrade public transport systems throughout South Africa. We take a look at what has happened since then
This project included the upgrading of transport systems for host cities of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This was the first time there was a clear commitment to produce universally accessible (UA) public transport systems in South Africa. The requirement to achieve UA was reinforced by a National Treasury stipulation that UA was a precondition for the approval of funding for these projects. This has created an opportunity to look at the functionality and safety of commuters, especially those who have functional limitations.
Since 1990, various initiatives have been developed by organisations of persons with disabilities to promote and develop accessible public transport. While air travel enjoyed the benefit of international standards and accessible aircraft boarding systems, rail and road lagged behind. There were various attempts to produce levels of accessibility on existing commuter rail, but these have been bedevilled by aged rolling stock and variable ballast and out of date station infrastructure, where vertical and horizontal gaps are too challenging to achieve any reliable universal access. The 2010 World Cup accelerated the development of the new age Gautrain fast commuter rail system in Gauteng, including the City of Johannesburg and the City of Tshwane, which is the one exception, as this is a significantly accessible commuter rail service.
When the City of Johannesburg started developing its IRPTN for rollout in 2010, it received advice from a range of international agencies, and was strongly influenced to use high-floor buses. Based on this advice, and cost concerns, the first South African BRT System, the Rea Vaya, opted for a high-floor modality using bus bodies manufactured on high-level ladder chassis. This decision, however, caused operating challenges, as platform lifts became problematic, access ramps were used to address the difference in level to gain access into the bus stations, and in many cases the ramps were at gradients that exceeded the minimum gradient specified in the Code 10400S, which is 1:12 or 8,3 percent (preferred gradient is 1:15 or 6,6 percent). Due to size constraints of the bus stations, with the effective floor height of these high-floor vehicles between 900 mm to 1000 mm from the road surface, access is difficult. The bus stations are located on the median islands, with access ramps on either side. This requires ramp lengths in excess of 15 metres long on either side of the station to achieve the required gradient and provide for a landing at the midpoint, adding a collective of more than 30 metres on each bus station. It is often difficult to accommodate the required length of these ramps, and as a consequence, the gradients had to be compromised.
This presents a difficult challenge when the feeder bus vehicles, which operate out of the trunk stations in a closed transfer system, have to deliver passengers with mobility limitations to the kerbside on the feeder bus routes. The feeder buses on the Rea Vaya system have been fitted with platform hoist systems, which are located at the second door from the front of the bus and have to be operated by the driver of the vehicle, requiring them to leave their seats, which is unsafe and an operationally non-compliant condition, but does allow a person in a wheelchair to board (and disembark from) the high-floor buses. The viability of using platform hoists as a genuine Universal Design and Universal Access solution is, by its very nature of operation and functionality, a contradiction.
As the planning for the next phase of service of the Rea Vaya moves ahead, the City of Johannesburg has made the fundamental shift to low-entry vehicles. Through this change it is hoped that the Rea Vaya will overcome some of the initial operational issues, to further increase its ridership numbers and to be able to offer a UA system to service commuters in Johannesburg.
Universal Design Africa (UDAfrica) sees universal design as a vehicle to create and enhance the functionality of environments, services and products for the widest range of users, recognising the diversity of the human condition. The UDAfrica team aims to create awareness, disseminate information and improve lives.