At the crack of dawn, 25-year-old Palesa Mavuka, who is a resident of Jabulani in Soweto, readies herself for work in Johannesburg’s suburb of Rivonia.
It’s a slick but cumbersome everyday routine: up at 4am and out of the house at 5.15am to make it for a Putco bus that may never come. If Mavuka is lucky, the dilapidated bus arrives, but it’s chock-a-block, leaving her to stand during the two-hour, 44 km-long journey to work.
She has to clock in at work before 8am.
“I am a young working adult now trying to forge my way in this world and I find it really hard to commute from home to work and back again,” the marketing junior tells Moneyweb.
Mavuka’s hardships are not unique to her; thousands of Johannesburg residents live in far-flung areas, taking an inordinate amount of time to travel to places of work.
Johannesburg’s spatial- and town-planning conundrum is no accident. It’s the legacy of the Group Areas Act of 1950 – a carefully-engineered legislation that racially divided urban areas. And more than 60 years later, cities are still grappling with the concept of inclusivity when it comes to areas of work and play.
If the City of Johannesburg had its way, the poor and rich would live side-by-side. Residents of the city would relinquish their love affair with cars and revert to public transport and the so-called ‘white’ and ‘black’ areas wouldn’t be part of the national lexicon.
The city is trying to achieve this through its spatial development strategy dubbed the ‘Corridors of Freedom’ to eliminate sprawling low-density areas without practical public transport networks.
The plan, which has been implemented since 2012, uses the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) and other mass transit systems to link areas on the outskirts closer to economic nodes, so Joburgers can live in affordable housing that is closer to their workplaces.
The City of Johannesburg’s executive director for development and planning, Yondela Silimela, says suburban living is not efficient, as leisure amenities are shared by few people. The proposal by the city is urban mixed-use areas that promote shared public spaces such as swimming pools and tennis courts between the rich and poor, to close the widening inequality gap.
Does this plan sound familiar? It probably does. Since 1994, plans have been drawn up to change the landscape of mixed-income spaces, including the Reconstruction and Development Programme and the Strategic Public Transport Network. Although these plans fast-tracked homeownership for lower-income citizens and high-intensity use of public transport, they’ve made a small dent on Johannesburg’s inefficient town planning.
Silimela says the difference between the Corridors of Freedom and other plans, is that there are now closer working relationships with city planners and property developers. A successful blueprint for the Corridors of Freedom is Bombela Concession’s high-speed Gautrain, which has attracted large-scale commercial and residential property developments around train stations.
Work on the 2040 Corridors of Freedom, with a city-wide and long-term budget of R100 billion, has begun. About R3 billion will be invested over the next three-years. The city has already invested on a BRT service that already runs from Soweto to the CBD via the Soweto Highway and Empire Perth. Other routes that are under construction include the Louis Botha Corridor linking the CBD to Alexandra and Sandton.
Planning is underway for a corridor running east and west of the mining belt that currently divides the city.
The next round of the integrated transport plan includes a BRT service running from OR Tambo International Airport through to Modderfontein and connecting to Randburg and Sandton.
“We are then looking at a north-south connector that will run from Randburg to Fourways then to Diepsloot, or Randburg past Cosmo City and Kya Sand towards Lanseria International Airport. We are looking to strengthen the north-south belt that cuts through the northern suburbs,” says Silimela.
It may be a long shot getting people to use public transport, given its limited reach and the high cost of various systems. On the latter, a recent Statistics South Africa survey revealed that South Africa’s poor households spend too much money on public transport (taxis, buses and trains), utilising more than 20% of their monthly household income on transport.
Much of the Corridors of Freedom’s success will rest on partnerships with property developers in changing land near BRT routes into higher-density and mixed-used developments. Private equity development financier the International Housing Solutions (IHS) is one of the residential developers that has rolled out housing near BRT routes. IHS partnered with JSE-listed construction firm Calgro M3 to develop 700 affordable housing units at Fleurhof, sandwiched between Soweto and Roodepoort. Fleurhof, which has an extensive BRT route running from Soweto to the CBD, is regarded as a success case when it comes to the Corridors of Freedom plan.
IHS, which owns over 8 000 units in the affordable housing space, has a mandate of investing in housing developments that are valued from R400 000 to R700 000. The company’s managing director Rob Wesselo says unzoned land that is closer to economic nodes is expensive, which often puts developers off.
Another problem, Wesselo says, are bulk service contributions made to local authorities for the upgrade of surrounding road, water and sewerage infrastructure to obtain the necessary zoning and municipal planning approvals.
“Nobody is asking for land to be free, but the state can provide it at an affordable rate and not with large service contributions. But the condition of this should be that affordable units are developed at a maximum price of say less than R700 000,” Wesselo adds.
Overall, industry players welcome the Corridors of Freedom. Property economist and associate professor at the University of Cape Town Francois Viruly says, although transit plans in South Africa are still in the early phase, the Corridors of Freedom have the potential to transform Johannesburg’s spatial landscape.
The approach to mixed-use developments in South Africa, purporting a live, work and play lifestyle, has largely targeted higher-end individuals – with the likes of Melrose Arch, Waterfall City and Steyn City, catering to the well-heeled that retreat behind high walls and beefed up security.
“Our challenge is to bring mixed-use developments down a notch and that is where these corridors can play an important role by offering affordable offices, shopping malls and housing in one area,” says Viruly.
He adds that property developers should bring affordable housing to the market, especially when it comes to targeting buyers that rely on government’s Finance Linked Individual Subsidy Programme, which offers housing subsidies to individuals with a monthly income of between R3 501 and R15 000. Read more here.
“For every 30 units that you sell in the affordable housing market, four or five will get financing. It’s one thing to draw an urban design and high density and it’s something else, whether people can afford that.”
What is clear is that policy certainty is key and certainty will likely make it easier for the private sector to buy into the City of Johannesburg’s ambitious vision.