By Paidamoyo Muzulu
THE ease of commuting intra and inter-city is one of the measurements of development. Many people want the ability to travel to and fro their workplaces safely and efficiently. Some want to visit their friends and relatives, while others want to visit as tourists. These all need good road networks and safe travel modes.
Over the past two decades, many Zimbabweans bought ex-Japanese cars for two reasons — they could afford during the dollarisation period and some needed convenience of travelling in their cars. There were even some who bought simply because they could or as cars had become, a status symbol marking arrival in life.
The cost of importing these cars ran into billions of US dollars each year, the kind of money Zimbabwe could ill-afford to externalise. The government was complicity in this looting of forex by looking the other way. Unlike South Africa, it could not ban second hand imports because there is no viable motor industry locally.
Government officials saw nothing wrong with the development, so long the citizens were paying their import or customs duty at ports of entry. No one saw the danger that roads would be clogged or how much pollution these cars would cause by burning fossil fuels.
Citizens were happy and government was smiling all the way to the bank. It was clear the honeymoon would end at some point. When the government realised that traffic chaos in Harare or any other major cities had become endemic, it opened tollgates and increased levies in the fuel cost build-up.
Driving in Harare is a nightmare, worse when it is raining. The roads have become impassable due to potholes. The daredevil kombi drivers and other illegal public transporters have made the bad situation dire.
In trying to address this problem, government used the COVID-19 lockdowns to drive out the kombis not on Zupco franchise. However, it was problematic because Zupco did not have any significant fleet to talk about.
To solve this, some murky deal to procure buses from China and Belarus was implemented. To date, some 700 buses have landed in the country and the last batch of 90 was commissioned on Tuesday. Zupco now has 789 buses out of the 1 500 targetted by end of 2022. However, the problems of efficient, affordable and safe commuting have not been resolved.
Interestingly, there is no solid plan on public transport in Harare or any other city for that matter. If it is available, then it has been poorly communicated. It is folly to believe that availing transport to civil servants is akin to having a vibrant public transport system.
All the buses coming are conventional buses — that is 60 to 75 seaters. There is no fleet mix to accommodate peak and off-peak period demands.
There are no defined routes for the buses and neither do they have timetables. Some may argue timetables are hard to implement when you have few buses, this argument is both lame and weak. One can have a timetable that can be adhered to even if it is hourly intervals to start with.
The plan to have dedicated bus lanes in Harare fell flat on its face because no one wanted to implement or monitor it. Chaos is still the order of peak periods. Buses are not the only form of public transport. Zimbabwe should start looking holistically at public transport beyond buses. The country needs an established cycling culture and light rail to complement the bus system.
Most urban areas used to have cycle-tracks but they are now mostly non-existent. It is shocking that people want to drive or board a bus to a destination less than four kilometres away. Most modern cities now have cycling lanes be it in London or Amsterdam. This needs support from the central government. In the Netherlands, the prime minister cycles to office.
While buses are a form of mass transit, rail is better than buses. Rail rarely is involved in traffic congestion. Light rail is different to normal trains. In Africa it has been successfully implemented in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Zimbabwe needs a proper railway system to cater for the commuting public. There is an existing east-west route, that is Marondera to Norton. This can become handy if well utilised. There is also the north-south route, that is Hatcliffe to Chitungwiza.
It is interesting that the Chitungwiza-Harare railway project died a natural death and has not been discussed even after the change of guard at Munhumutapa.
This is a line that can easily be run using light rail and at a cost of less than US$3 billion. However, it seems it is not a priority at the moment.
The rail and bus services should not be independent of each other but should be complementary and synchronised.
The Gautrain in Johannesburg or the NLS in the Netherlands are good examples. On the aforementioned services, commuters use the same card for payment and cost is done per kilometre travelled.
It is shocking that in this day and age, a Zupco commuter on the Harare to Chitungwiza route pays the same fare as someone doing the whole trip even if they drop after 10km.
Some would argue it is expensive to put such a system. No, it is laziness and a culture of greed and profiteering.
Mobile operators used to do the same and charged per minute until they were forced to bill per second.
After all has been said and done, this is the moment to relook and implement a new efficient, safe and reliable public transport system.
A system that would give commuting public dignity and cost them less. The bureaucrats should start earning their salaries and do the right thing or they ship out and pave way for competent people.