Better understanding and not just “an app” needed to improve public transport

Posted on October 16, 2022

Mr Tlhalefi Austin Mphela, a final-year Civil Engineering student was featured in the September issue of SAICE, Civil Engineering magazine. This is what Austin had to say in the article titled 'Better understanding of public transport': 

“When I started my vacation work at the CSIR, I was asked what innovation would be necessary to improve public transport. I immediately said we need apps for a number of interventions. At the top of the list was an app for people with disabilities. I also indicated that throwing the book at minibus taxi operators would go a long way to improving services. However, I was short on specifics.

In order to fill in the missing details, I was asked to carry out an ethnographic investigation entailing the life of a minibus taxi driver, as well as that of a person living with a disability. Here I only relate the story concerning the lived experience of a taxi driver. The story of me using various public transport modes in a wheelchair or blindfolded are for another day

I wanted to understand why taxi drivers drive the way they do, why they skip red traffic lights, and why some are aggressive towards customers. I also wanted to know if they were aware of these behaviours. I started searching for a minibus taxi driver with whom I could spend several days, from the time they wake up in the morning, to the time they call it a day. Thabo*, a driver based in Mamelodi, agreed and for two days I arrived at his house very early in the morning, drove with him throughout the day, ate what he ate, and joined in conversations he had with other drivers. LIVED


Thabo typically wakes up at 03:00 and starts his working day by 04:15. He doesn’t eat breakfast at home. Instead, he grabs tea and fat cakes (magwinya) when he arrives at the taxi rank while waiting for his chance to get a passenger load. If he doesn’t get an opportunity to grab tea and fat cakes at the rank, he will only get to eat breakfast at around 09:30 when it is no longer busy.

When he leaves his house in the morning he starts working immediately, collecting people along the way who are headed to the taxi rank, free of charge. Every driver in the Mamelodi Taxi Association does the same. I found this to be a kind gesture by the drivers and the association at large because it is very dark during those early hours and likely unsafe. At the taxi rank there would be about twelve lines of taxis, each made up of ten taxis, in what is called a “bumper to bumper” line-up. The first taxi to get a load will be the one that got to the rank first, followed sequentially by the rest. While waiting for earlier taxis to fill up, those not in the line take note of the vehicle immediately ahead of them to secure a spot to come back to, and then roam around, collecting and bringing passengers to the taxi rank. Once the first taxi gets a load of passengers and departs, the eleventh taxi joins the queue to maintain the ten taxis per line formation. The first batch of taxis (the ones that are first in line) is dispatched at exactly 05:00 with passengers.

Click here to read more about how Austin experienced the life of a taxi driver and what key lessons he got from the experience. (Page 28 of the magazine)

Mr Tlhalefi Austin Mphela has been invited for a telephone interview on Tuesday, 18 October 2022 at 07:20. Tune in for Austin's interview on the morning breakfast show called Thagamoso.

- Author SAICE, Civil Engineering

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