Cape Town’s Public Transport – the political obstacles to a unified smart card

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Cape Town is developing into one of the most attractive and exciting cities in the world. There are, however, aspects of the city that have a long way to go. The city hosts some of the best public transport in Africa. Unfortunately, public transport has not reached its full potential due to political bickering.

Most modern cities employ a unified smart card to facilitate more efficient and integrated public transport. Cape Town lacks such a system despite much of the infrastructure already being in place. This infrastructure is not operational because the relevant transport operators hold opposing political allegiances.

Cape Town, Modes of Transport, and Stakeholders

South Africa’s troubled history has a lasting legacy. Apartheid urban planning divided cities on race lines, ensuring an unequal distribution of state resources. Areas assigned to black people were not developed or invested in. Rather, they were designed with “security” in mind, often having one way in and out so the police could contain civil unrest. This legacy is difficult to dismantle. Many of these areas still suffer from congestion and restricted mobility. This, in turn, limits the residents’ capacity to access work, education, and healthcare. In effect, Apartheid planning still perpetuates poverty today. Effective public transport is key to ensuring poorer communities do not suffer from restricted mobility.

The main modes of public transport in Cape Town are buses, minibus taxis, trains, and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Private operators run buses along major routes across the city but minibus taxis have become the primary mode of urban public transport across South Africa. They are generally referred to simply as “taxis” as metered cabs are uncommon. The trains principally function during peak commuter hours. They are plagued by inefficiency, lateness, and vandalism. The MyCiTi Bus BRT system, with designated bus lanes and stations, was a result of the 2010 World Cup. It is an efficient, but limited, system.

There are two key agencies who oversee public transport in Cape Town. Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) is a state owned enterprise responsible for rail transport across the country. Its subsidiary is Metrorail which operates commuter rail in urban centres such as Cape Town. Passengers often refer to it as “Metrofail”.

Transport for Cape Town (TCT) controls the MyCiTi bus service. It is “responsible for planning, costing, contracting, regulating, monitoring, evaluating, communicating, managing and maintaining the City of Cape Town’s transport infrastructure, systems, operations, facilities and network.”[1]

Graffiti at False Bay Station reveals public outrage at the unreliable service (censored)

Graffiti at False Bay Station reveals public outrage at the unreliable service (censored)

Interoperability and the Benefits of a Unified Travel Card

The central terminus is Cape Town Station and the Civic Centre. Here buses, taxis, MyCiTi buses, and trains meet. This is interoperability at its best. From here all of the city is accessible; however, it is only from here. There are very few other places you can conveniently change between modes of transport.

It is important to note that all public transport in Cape Town uses cash payment, with the exception of the MyCiTi Bus, which uses the MyConnect card. This card is used to pay for trips on the MyCiTi which has limited penetration and is comparatively expensive relative to other modes of transport. Interestingly, the card is also a MasterCard debit card and can be used to purchase goods. It cannot, however, be used to take any other bus, train, or taxi. This severely restricts interoperability between modes. Cities such as London now use credit cards for direct ticketing. That the MyConnect card has an ability to function as a debit card increases its potential to be used on various modes of transport in the future.

Cape Town needs to upgrade the ticketing system of the trains so that the MyConnect card can be used on both the MyCiTi buses and the Metrorail trains. The most immediate benefit would be an improved experience for the commuter. The experience of efficient, affordable, accessible, interoperable, and convenient public transport would make public transport more attractive, especially vis-a-vis private cars. To have a single card attached to your keys or in your mobile phone case would make accessing transport easy (and forgetting your keys difficult).

Currently, large numbers of commuters access the trains without paying for a ticket. This is especially true on weekends when trains are infrequent and many stations are unstaffed (nobody is selling or checking tickets). By modernising the system and ensuring that trains can only be accessed with a MyConnect card, these commuters will be able to pay for the service they receive. This will help revenue flow and allow the system to be improved.

Among other benefits, the generation of useful data cannot be overlooked. As technology develops, we are able to analyse more data more accurately and more efficiently. By studying commuter behaviour, transport managers are able to adjust services, responding to trends, thereby improving the service.

A unified card would also allow for fare modification. Tickets could be subsidised for the elderly or those who are dependent on the state for welfare grants. Subsidies could also be applied to certain stations which service economically disadvantaged communities. A surcharge could be levied at peak hours, thereby increasing revenue generated from people gainfully employed. Further, fees could be based on distance. Currently the fees are the same to travel one station or fifteen. This disincentivises short trips, which restricts the number of riders and, ultimately, revenue.

A final benefit of a unified card concerns interoperability. By having a unified card, it is possible to minimise the penalty for switching between modes. Once a person has taken a bus and swiped their card, they may change to another bus or train for a discounted price. Thus commuters are not penalised for needing to change from their initial vehicle or mode. By facilitating easier and cheaper transfers, the effective range of public transport is increased.

Cape Town should extend the use of the MyConnect card to the trains. Ideally, the smart card should operate on the buses and minibus taxis as well. Being privately operated, however, there are a number of complications that arise. Having a unified card for two public entities (the BRT and trains) should be easier to facilitate. A number of the stations in Cape Town (the central station and a number of other important stations) already have electronic gates and card readers but these are inoperable.

Passengers walk past inoperable ticket machines in Cape Town Station.

Passengers walk past inoperable ticket machines in Cape Town Station.

Jurisdictional Problems and Party Politics

What has prevented the MyConnect card from being used on the trains? My attempts to communicate with PRASA and Metrorail were unsuccessful. Thankfully, the City of Cape Town finally responded:

“The City’s vision for public transport is to work towards a situation where commuters can use a MyConnect card on all modes of public transport – be it passenger rail or the MyCiTi bus service. For this vision to be realised however, the National Department of Transport must assign to the City of Cape Town the mandate to take over the management of passenger rail in Cape Town. It is unfortunately unclear at this stage if and when the National Government will be willing to do so.”

This response outlines the jurisdictional problem between national and local government. This problem affects cities around the world. It especially affects Cape Town because of the political rift between political parties.

The national government is controlled by the African National Congress (ANC) while Cape Town is controlled by the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition party. This is of greater importance than usual as this is an election year and the DA is on the campaign trail. The first move of the City of Cape Town was to pass off responsibility and blame to the ANC-controlled national government.

This assumes that, in order for the MyConnect card to be used on Metrorail trains, control of the trains must be transferred from the national government to the local government. This simply is not true. What is required is cooperation between the stakeholders. The national government has a history of mismanagement and corruption. The opposition, however, seems more concerned with exploiting this ineptitude for political gain than actually working together to achieve meaningful change.

In order to understand more, I emailed TCT, asking two questions:

  1. What necessitates the City of Cape Town taking over management from the National Department of Transport rather than simply co-operating?
  2. Can this in any way be linked to the Department of Transport being ANC controlled and Cape Town being DA controlled?


I was offered an interview with Councillor Brett Herron, a DA member on the Mayoral Committee heading the transport portfolio. Our meeting was repeatedly postponed until I eventually received an email response to my questions.

The councillor wrote that TCT believes public transport to be difficult to implement but important to the city. He describes the city’s development plan stating that “to implement the vision we need to manage passenger rail”. This is not an answer to the question. My question is why do you need to take over passenger rail to implement the vision? This was never answered.

He explained how TCT’s taking over from PRASA was acceptable under our constitution, insisting that TCT had the necessary skills to manage the trains. This is good to know; unfortunately, it does not explain why they are unable to cooperate with PRASA to implement a unified smart card.

On whether he believed the need for TCT to take over from the national parastatal was linked to party politics he responded:

“I am beginning to suspect that the failure or refusal to assign functions to the City of Cape Town is politically motivated.  It took the National Minister of Transport nearly four years to respond to our application and even then her response was not acceptable.”

This is, sadly, a politicised response in an election year. The problem South Africans face is our politicians spend so much time jostling for authority and are so unwilling to work with each other that basic problems go unsolved. Capetonians will have to wait until after August’s elections to see if any progress will be made.[2]

A train covered in graffiti arrives at Wynberg Station

A train covered in graffiti arrives at Wynberg Station


[2] While I am critical of Cllr. Herron’s response, I must commend the city of Cape Town and TCT for replying to my messages. The lack of response from PRASA and Metrorail is telling of their inefficiency and disconnect from the users of their service.

This piece is the original writing of the author(s). The view points in the post is the author’s personal opinions and do not reflect IGLUS/EPFL’s viewpoints. The author(s) is the sole responsible person regarding the accuracy of the information presented in the post and will be liable for any potential copyright infringements.

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