Shingai T. Kawadza,Correspondent
The deregulation of Zimbabwe’s urban transport system in August 1993 paved way for private players into the transport sector, who at present mostly dominate or have a slight monopoly in Harare’s public transport system.
With their somewhat deceitful operations, which have been interwoven with abusive touting at undesignated “pick-up/ drop-off” points, these operators are bent on profitability at the expense of the commuting public.
The motive of deregulating the public transport sector was driven by the twin agenda to liberalise markets, thus reducing Government’s expenditure in the form of subsidised fares, and fostering the black empowerment drive by allowing local transport operators to enter the urban public transport market.
This black economic empowerment drive is evidenced by private owners operating commuter omnibuses, commonly known as kombis, being allowed to enter the urban public transport sector to supplement services hitherto provided by the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (ZUPCO).
Then Government’s move opened opportunities for commuter omnibus operators to do business in an environment devoid of State players. The first port of call for anybody who got a windfall was and/is a kombi business.
Due to the entrance of the new kid — kombis, the State withdrew ZUPCO buses from plying urban routes, which it had dominated for a long time.
The deregulation move brought a new dispensation to the public transport system.
Unfortunately, over the past two decades, reality on the ground indicates that kombi operators have largely failed to regulate themselves by instilling professionalism in the sector.
The urban transport market, especially in Harare has become a bone of contention.
Oftentimes public commuters are found at the receiving end of rogue commuter operators’ behaviour.
Quick surveys with public commuters in Harare reveal that the contemporary urban transport sector is dangerous, profit-driven and mostly environmentally unfriendly. Kombis and the so called mushika-shikas are described as the most boisterous sector in the country.
The “law of the jungle” and “survival of the fittest” is at play as their fares are hiked willy-nilly without consultation with the regulators or the Government.
Events of the past three weeks, which resulted in the autonomous and unjustifiable sudden increase of fares by kombis in the aftermath of fuel shortages brought to the fore the urgent need for responsible authorities in the transport sector to have a re-look at revamping the urban transport system, which they will have sovereign control.
To the delight of many, ZUPCO came to their rescue considering the harsh and unstable economic environment facing the country.
However, the introduction of ZUPCO buses by the Government came as a relief to many commuters as the buses seem to be affordable to the general public. Commuters are paying a dollar for a single trip within Harare and $2 for a one way trip to Chitungwiza and Norton.
On the other hand, the commuter omnibuses have naturally been forced to reduce their fares as a result of the move.
In addition, the introduction of ZUPCO buses in Harare will go a long way in de-congesting the central business district and also bring normalcy into the urban transport sector. In developed countries, mass transport systems have been proven to be more efficient in the use of space and address a number of issues, including safety of passengers, less pollution and above all enhances the attractiveness of cities as investment destinations.
Going forward, as the City of Harare endeavours to achieve the world class status by 2025, it is vital for the city fathers to address the current urban transport woes the city is facing.
Mobility is critical to the efficiency and functionality of any city in need of attaining a world class status.
To start with, a Harare transport policy is an obligatory essential tool that will in a long way make available important guidelines for managing Harare’s traffic and transportation system as well as the built environment in general.
This is an important policy that has been lacking for a big city like Harare, and in more importantly the policy, as in other first world cities, will have to be hinged on creating a transport system that is reliable, affordable, efficient and most importantly sustainable.
In addition, the policy will have to balance the basic needs of different transport users, but largely promoting the use of higher capacity public passenger vehicles for maximum utilisation of the available urban space within the city
As for the Government, the reintroduction of the mass public transport system in Zimbabwe through the reintroduction of the (ZUPCO) buses will restore sanity and ameliorate the challenges that commuters have hitherto been subjected to.
An efficient and reliable ZUPCO will naturally push out kombis.
With more buses flooding Harare and other urban areas, the commuter omnibus operators will be left with no option, but to shape up or ship out. As economists always urge Government to let market forces determine prices and exchange rates, indeed, the forces will make everything fall in place in the urban transport system.
An additional low-hanging fruit for the Government to consider going forward in terms of public transport is the reintroduction of passenger trains.
One can recall how the passenger trains helped the general public from 2003-2006 in areas like Mufakose, Budiriro, Dzivaresekwa, Ruwa only to name a few.
However, the recapitalisation of the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) and ZUPCO is very important.
In light of the foregoing, Government in conjunction with local authorities should gradually phase-out kombis from the urban public transport system.
The option might sound harsh, but for the sake of sanity in the transport sector, it is necessary. This can be achieved through discontinuing, henceforth, the issuing of new operating permits. In the long run, the existing kombis and mushika-shikas will be ageing and moved off the roads.
During this time, Government will be procuring more buses to replace these kombis. While this is in the long-term, one thing that is definite is the demand for a reliable, affordable and efficient public transport system.
In a nutshell, the need for kombis and mushika-shikas as an intermediate transport system should not be overlooked as one risks throwing the baby with bath water.
Overall, they have proved themselves to be a popular mode of travel which gives a frequent service, resulting in shorter travel times than is the case with buses.
It is noble that they be given support to provide better services with an improved standard of safety and modus operandi.
Shingai T Kawadza is a town planner by profession and currently attached to the Urban Development Corporation (UDCORP) as a planning officer.
He writes in his personal capacity.
The opinions and views expressed therein must not be viewed as those of UDCORP.
He may be contacted on: email@example.com.