Pedestrians at The Marc, in Sandon Johannesburg. Photo by Adam Letch

In most South African cities, the motor car is king, and congested traffic and long commutes to work are the norm. In Johannesburg though, the Gautrain has been a gamechanger for surrounding areas – increasing accessibility to public transport and thus stimulating the emergence of denser business nodes. It has been key to unlocking land value.

Convenience is an elixir which accelerates the business case of transit-orientated developments – high-volume buildings nearby public transport interchanges. By making surrounding properties more accessible to big spenders the Gautrain is changing the skyline. Alan Cameron sketches the local view seen on the journey from access to land value.

“Without the Gautrain and the BRT loop around the adjoining blocks, a building like The Marc would not have been possible,” says Bob van Bebber, director at Boogertman + Partners. “It provided a marketing angle to attract the corporate users required to fill the building. The BRT loop around the blocks of the Gautrain system also meaningfully contributes to the flow of people.

“Walkability between The Marc and this improved network and also the taxi rank was a key consideration. During development there was a much bigger drive to improve pavements and cycle lanes in Sandton, we had a cycle lane coming in front of The Marc. On the site originally was the Village Walk, a traditional shopping centre talking to the local community, with no P- or A-Grade offices. While Rivonia Road isn’t the most walkable street it was important for us to create access to respond to a pedestrian environment. We improved the way the building interacted with the street edge and walkways, and respond to pedestrian crossings and building entry points adjacent to the site.”

“We created on-grade access to a bespoke double-level retail node that would benefit off the office users and increasing number of permanent residents in the area. And at lunch time and after work this convenient access proves itself as other building users stream into The Marc.” 

The parking ratios for Tower 1  and Tower 2 are both around a ratio of 4:100m². However, Tower 2’s interior design took advantage of the people-movement patterns of MMI, who had signed to use Tower 2 as their Johannesburg headquarters. Understanding the requirements of the tenant enabled Boogertman + Partners to allow for 12 people per 100m², and a parking provision for around 50% of its users, making the remaining 50% reliant on public transport networks.

A similar attitude was taken towards the retail and restaurant tenants. Retail were allocated half the regular determination – 3 bays per 100m² – while restaurants given bays by floor space, not per seat. “When we did the parking planning we worked out a cyclical parking demand strategy from the Holiday Inn Hotel and other adjacent sites, as well as from the future residential and hotel block. We expect future parking requirements will come down as future phases will have a lower reliance on parking and increased reliance on an integrated secondary and tertiary transport network system.

“It’s not a fully serviced network at the moment and currently there is a higher reliance on private vehicles, but the networks will grow either via formal public means or, or private initiatives like tuk-tuks, minibus taxis or Uber.”

The Marc’s design acknowledges this demand with designated drop-off areas and turning circles to ensure any e-hailing taxis can come off the road and back into traffic flow safely. “We’ve done this on other projects as well, Discovery’s Sandton Head office allows drop-offs in the basement without requiring drivers to validate parking, and has drop-off points north and south of the site.”

Convenient access brings business

What accelerates the growth of property values? Most agree that it comes down to physical factors like property characteristics, land-use type and existing infrastructure; environmental factors like neighbourhood characteristics and; accessibility factors like how easily people and goods can travel to a site.

New or improved transport infrastructure increases land accessibility and triggers an increased viability for developers. Different land uses respond differently to access; a central, highly accessible area is suitable for retail, while an outlying area with good roads is often attractive to logistics centres.

Where things happen, matters

“Obviously there is a significant link between transport, the economy and property development,” agrees Rob McGaffen. “Where things happen, matters.”

“But remember that convenience is often a two-way street. Business no longer price giving staff, suppliers and customers easy access to their location, but also for their ability to go to customers. More than two-thirds of Cape Town’s economy is based on delivering goods and services so accessing customers are increasingly important,” he predicts.

Cities are the engine of national economies, why? Because, “concentrating so many people in dense, interactive, shared spaces has historically provided distinct… agglomeration advantages. Through agglomeration, cities have the power to innovate, generate wealth, enhance quality of life and accommodate more people within a smaller footprint at lower percapita resource use and emissions than any other settlement pattern,” according to UN Habitat’s Urban Patterns for a Green Economy series.

McGaffen continues: “There are only certain areas where you have an agglomeration effect, where businesses feed off each other. Hence it’s really important to get these places but South Africa has a particularly high cost of logistics, directly impacts a service economy.”

“Many economies measure a 7% cost of logistics against their GDP. SA scores in the teens which has a lot to do with the sprawling nature of our cities and the state of the transport infrastructure within them.

“Transport performs a distinct function for each type of property. The office market is driven by being able to get people with skills to their place of work, retail is about convenience and industrial use is becoming a logistics game, the vast majority of new industrial areas focuses on warehousing and distribution.” 

“Look at office nodes in Cape Town. Historically it was only the CBD, mainly because all roads, rail and bus routes led to it. It was a product of a transport system and the result is uni-directional traffic flow and congestion. But appropriate property development can create multi-directional flow in areas that are not currently busy. Getting this right is difficult, but it is very important.

“What is really frustrating is that we are in a situation where the congestion is getting increasingly bad. The Tom Tom Traffic Index finds that between 6am and 9am, and 3pm and 6pm at peak times Cape Town motorists spend an average of 67% of their commute in congestion. These conditions push people out of cars. But the frustration is that one of the main alternatives should be the train – but the train’s dysfunction means they already shed passengers into busses and minibus taxis,” explains Roger Behrens, UCT Associate Professor and Director at the Centre of Transport Studies.  

Cape Town train passenger trips have halved from 600 000 to 300 000 in the last decade.

“This volume of trips has accelerated our congestion levels to the point where Cape Town is the worst in the country. Employers and employees alike spend longer on the roads, emitting more carbon, wasting time. This lost productivity has all sorts of multiplier effects.”

“Our public transport is at capacity at peak,” agrees transport planner Gerhard Hitge. “In Blouberg many motorists who have switched to MyCiTi bus services have been replaced by new motorists. While the MyCiTi is a brilliant example of where the shift is happening it still only accounts for 4% of morning trips on public transport at peak in Cape Town.”

In 2015 Hitge and Professor Marianne Vanderschuren authored a paper describing the difference in travel time between captive users, who had no choice other than to use public transport, and choice commuters with access to a private car. On average captive users spend almost double the time per trip during the morning peak.

More important than whether a transport mode is reliable, predictable and affordable, it needs to be safe, according to sector consultant Gail Jennings. “Ultimately, the challenge is that public modes of transport [nationally] are inflexible and dangerous. Motorists have no compelling reason to stop driving. Everyone who owns a car has decided that rather than using public transport, spending staggeringly more to sit in traffic is the best option.”

One result is an extended morning and afternoon peak travel period of three hours.

Larger companies respond by moving out of badly congested nodes, or consolidating their operations under one roof so that intraday meetings are a walk to the meeting room and not a snarl-up across town. Opportunities for flexi-time or the ability to work from home are also increasing.

“A short-coming of current public-led approaches is that we try the big bang approach. Our planning proposals go from where we are now to where we want to be, and there is a giant leap to the second scenario. The reality is that property development is incremental and often a large change is not feasible. The typical response is reducing parking and having maximum parking restrictions in policy. But when there is no public transport available this creates difficulties,” says town planner and land economist Rob McGaffin.

“Consider that there are now more people in offices per square metre, and so parking demands are potentially increasing. With parking restrictions the demand for the property decreases, and if the demand is too low you’ll not achieve the project,” he says.

Public transport is the backbone

“There is no doubt about it. Public transport is the backbone of the transport system. We’re never going to deal with our transport needs without it. It’s imperative that Metrorail starts to work again. It has worked in the past and can go quite a long way to addressing some of the issues. In order to get our public transport working we need to restructure our cities to be multi-nodal mixed density to create a mixed-use type of pattern. This won’t happen overnight but something that we need to move towards.

“The big reality check is that public transport is expensive to roll out. National treasury funds capital expenditure, and this pool of money is drying up. Further, to run them is very expensive and this operating cost is put to the municipality. Financially sustainable public transport systems normally require residential densities of about 50 dwelling units per hectare. SA cities average at 15,” McGaffen notes.

Traffic and transportation veteran Steve Sutcliffe of Trafficon makes the point that in our cities worsening congestion means we no longer enjoy consistent travel times, even in private vehicles. “Think of it like the Cape Town water crisis: we each have to change our behaviour, before we begin to see an overall difference. Private motorists are on their own and entrepreneurial solutions, via cellphone apps, are waiting for that behavioural change to demonstrate how to reduce congestion. The municipalities have enough trouble trying to help out the poor communities, those disadvantaged and captive to public transport. And rightly so.” And Jennings agrees: “About 60% of trips in SA are made by minibus taxi. So, if you’re going to invest in improved transport it needs to be where the majority of your users are.”

Lula and City One are two home-grown apps aimed at private transport needs. Lula provides shuttles for corporates who are looking for safe, timely and affordable transport for their staff and City One is a ride sharing commuting app that enables motorists to find people on their route to work, and save money riding with them. Jennings recommends trying to reduce one’s own contribution to the traffic. “But don’t make a sudden change. Rather consider replacing one trip per month. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” say Jennings who uses Uber into the CBD when time-bound for a meeting, and often elects to return by train.

Crime cripples the promise of public transport

“The primary reason people do not take the train, similarly to why they do not cycle or walk. It is often not safe,” says Jennings.

“One of the biggest challenge with walking is safety,” agrees van Bebber, who comments that while a modern security camera network is useful, the presence of informal traders’ are a “huge advantage” for authorities and developers to create safer streets. “The transport department doesn’t have the responsibility, competency or budget for policing or making precincts safe,” Jennings notes. Which is why, Hitge says, “a dependency on the municipality to keep the pedestrian route safe and well-lit is a weak link in any retail development.”

This is partly why a secondary network around Gautrain stations is so important to enabling high-volume development, like The Marc. Congestion may be the cost of doing business, however this climbing price reduces demand, and when our national economy needs to bootstrap itself via the growing services sector, South Africa should be careful crime does not price business out of the market.

This article was written by Alan Cameron and first published in +Impact Magazine, published by the Green Building Council South Africa.

Transport in South African Cities

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