Image: A South African man holds on inside a Rea Vaya bus
Paballo Thekiso  /  AFP - Getty Images
A South African man holds on inside a Rea Vaya bus on Sunday during a free ride trip around Johannesburg as part of the official launch of the new Johannesburg Bus Rapid Transit System.
updated 8/30/2009 4:16:25 PM ET 2009-08-30T20:16:25

Africa's commercial center launched the city's first safe, reliable public transport system on Sunday, despite protests from operators of private commuter services that it will ruin their business.

City officials hope the new daily service will improve the commute of millions of Johannesburg and Soweto residents who squeeze into unreliable and poorly maintained old minibuses that often are driven dangerously.

"Going to work must not be a life-threatening and nail-biting exercise," said transport minister Sbu Ndebele at Sunday's launch. "Without public transport, a country wallows in underdevelopment. The right to travel, and move about, cannot be restricted."

World Cup fans to benefit
Officials say they also hope the 400,000 visitors expected for the 2010 World Cup fans will benefit from the service.

The new system includes about 40 buses traveling the main route from Soweto to downtown Johannesburg. This route is expected to be used by World Cup visitors since it is close to tourist attractions in the historic township, such as the famous Regina Mundi church and the old home of former President Nelson Mandela.

There also will be two circular routes through the inner city, stopping in a popular office district and in a cultural precinct known for its theaters, restaurants and nightclubs.

Buses will run from 5 a.m. to midnight, every three minutes in peak times and every 10 minutes in off-peak times. About 430,000 passengers will eventually use the service each day, officials said.

South Africa has no decent mass transport system, and apartheid planning left black people stranded in townships on the edges of the cities. In response, black entrepreneurs began informal shuttle services for township dwellers and this has grown into a booming business.

But the taxi industry has a reputation for being unsafe and contributing to South Africa's many fatal road accidents. Van are poorly maintained, drivers are reckless and have been known to assault passengers. Commuters also risk being shot while waiting in line for buses when turf wars develop over routes.

Small percentage own cars
Only 7 million of South Africa's 50 million people have their own vehicles, and the government — spurred on by 2010 World Cup — is spending billions of dollars on improving public transport.

By next year the new bus system will be in use across the country, new highways will reduce congestion and Johannesburg will have a high-speed train.

On Sunday, journalists rode along in a new red-and-blue bus from downtown Johannesburg to Soweto, passing mine dumps and the new flagship soccer stadium being built. At Thokoza Park, one of the many attractive new stations decorated with public art, Sowetans lined up for a free ride.

"I think is very good," said Florence Khosa, 47. "The taxis are there, but there are problems. Now we will be safer, the fares are cheaper and we will reach work on time."

On Monday commuters will start paying for riding the Bus Rapid Transit system known as Rea Vaya, which means "we are moving."

A round trip from Soweto to the inner city will cost rands 8 (about $1) — at least half the cost of a taxi.

Phase one of 25.5 kilometers (16 miles) will be extended to more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) by the World Cup, with other cities coming on board with their own buses.

A total of 300 kilometers (185 miles) are eventually planned for Johannesburg's system.

Resistance from taxi operators
But Bus Rapid Transit has been met by fierce resistance from taxi operators and a showdown has been looming with a determined government expecting a public transport crunch during the World Cup.

On Friday taxi operators called off a strike, which would have left tens of thousands of workers stranded, after they failed to get a court order stopping Sunday's launch.

Aggrieved taxi operators feel the government has renegade on assurances from President Jacob Zuma that the new system would not proceed without their concerns being addressed.

The new system will mean a number of taxis will have to be taken off competing routes and government support will mean Bus Rapid Transit operators will have a competitive advantage.

However, government officials have said no livelihoods will be lost and is hoping those affected will be absorbed into the running of the new system either as operators or in support services. It also is hoped that there will be secure jobs for many taxi drivers who earn little and work long hours.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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