Enforcement of the ban on pirate kombis will, as Local Government and Public Works Minister July Moyo stressed in Bulawayo this last weekend, helps to bring order to the roads and will potentially improve Zupco services, especially if the owners of mechanically sound kombis still outside Zupco control sign up and are allowed to sign up.
Greater efforts to bar pirate taxis, the mushikashikas, will also boost Zupco’s viability by ensuring that passengers take Zupco buses, improve road safety and improve passenger safety.
These cars cannot join the Zupco fleet so will leave a hole, but improved Zupco management and a system change that encourages stops at intermediate bus stops on the routes can fill the gap.
But these laudable efforts to continually upgrade Zupco and create a decent and safe public transport system need to be accompanied by better Zupco management of its services, something the minister was in effect promising with the introduction of a recently developed monitoring system, and by Zupco starting to be a lot more customer friendly.
The concept of one service, one controller but many owners, pioneered at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, provided the major breakthrough that has made the modern Zupco effective.
It was an ad hoc emergency decision to deal with extreme circumstances, and suddenly made the breakthrough that brought a great deal of order to public transport, a breakthrough that many including local authorities and the Government, had been trying to implement before.
Minister Moyo is totally correct in wanting to build on that success, making it permanent and making it more effective.
So the latest development, that businesses and schools wanting to hire buses to move staff and pupils, have to work through Zupco rather than making a direct deal with a private owner is a logical and desirable step forward.
But at the same time Zupco management needs to think why, with the Zupco fleet operational, pirate kombis and mushikashika still operate and why potential Zupco passengers use them.
First there is convenience.
Zupco does not cover all obvious routes. Most suburban routes are from suburb, down the main road, to the city centre.
A lot of people need routes that go directly from suburb to industrial sites, without the need to change buses in the city centre and especially when this change might require a 20 minute walk between terminuses as well as a wait for the second bus.
Then there is the second fare. If pirate kombis find these routes viable why not Zupco franchised kombis?
We also have routes that are not served, or very badly served.
For example, Zupco does not service Avondale, yet there is an obvious route for franchised kombis now monopolised by mushikashika.
Then you get something like the Borrowdale route, with a lot of passenger demand although perhaps not from homeowners in that area, now almost totally controlled by pirate kombis and “lifts”, usually from the opposite side of Simon Muzenda Street from the terminus although some pirate kombis actually use the terminus and hire touts.
The Hatcliffe Extension Zupco bus service provides a good alternative but departures are infrequent during the day.
In other words, Zupco needs to start managing its franchised kombis, which hopefully will include the better ones on these sort of routes, to provide more of the side services and shorter routes.
Then we have Zupco’s own fleet. Every two or three months President Mnangagwa commissions and hands over to Zupco another batch of Golden Dragon buses.
Many commuters have never travelled in one since they cannot be found on most routes. And there is as a result a lot of curiosity about where exactly does Zupco deploy these new buses.
Many commuters appreciate the President’s efforts but would like to sit in the result.
One problem that Zupco faces in Harare is the need to use four terminuses, because there is no central terminus.
Pirates can go past most but Zupco buses, for good reason, have to use the closest to the arterial road they travel down to the city centre.
There is a bit of adjustment here and there, but a very cheap Zupco kombi service doing the 2km between Simon Muzenda Street and Market Square, with the obvious two stops en route for the other two terminuses, should be viable.
Then we have a major bugbear, and one that suggests no Zupco manager uses public transport or has studied best practice. This is the lack of route labelling on buses and the lack of signs at terminuses.
It should be compulsory for all buses to have their route on a sign in the window, for example City-Budiriro.
At least everyone would know where a bus was coming from or going. And terminuses need each boarding point labelled. This is pretty basic.
The terminus signs should also include the route description, so someone wanting to go halfway would know where the bus can stop. A huge operation like London Transport numbers bus routes and has route information for all numbered routes readily available.
Some Zupco buses do not stop for intermediate passengers, even when they have empty seats.
Here the pirates, despite their rudeness, win.
They always stop if one more person can be squeezed in. That is simply operational management.
Tap cards are far from universal, yet a common Zupco fare in Harare is $45. The $5 note is now hard to find and few passengers have one, and fewer conductors can offer change.
Universal use of tap cards would avoid the resulting problem of higher effective fares and, here Zupco does win, the company has booths that sell and recharge tap cards at all terminuses using mobile money, swipe cards, local notes and foreign currency. You can take your pick.
The Government has made major efforts, especially since the start of Covid-19, to rebuild a decent public transport system and by being practical and reinforcing successes, such as the franchise option, has accelerated that progress. The change has been startling, both for passengers and for other road users, since Zupco does enforce driving rules.
But these immense Government efforts now need to be backed by better Zupco management and by far better customer relations between Zupco and its passengers.
Many improvements would be cheap.
A few signs, Zupco marshals at terminuses, and even major intermediate stops, able to call a control room, expanding the route network where necessary and ensuring a more even flow of buses.