JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – In this busy city, Ntsika Gqomfa, a historian and tour guide, relies on South Africa’s first Bus Rapid Transport system, known as the Rea Vaya, daily. 

Gqomfa says the Rea Vaya is safe, clean and cheap. His daily commutes to his home in Soweto using a taxi – the South African equivalent of Ghana’s “trotro” minibuses – to his job at the Constitution Hill memorial complex in central Johannesburg would cost almost double the amount he pays on the Rea Vaya Bus.

“The Rea Vaya stop is 700 metres from where I stay so it’s right near. It’s a 5-minute walk and also when it drops me, it drops me right here (at work),” says Gqomfa. “If I had to take a taxi I would have to take two taxis to get to work. Also, I will have to take two taxis from work to home. This is more cost-effective.”

Historian and tour guide at the Constitution Hill Memorial Complex in Johannesburg, Ntsika Gqomfa.

On a typical day in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, a modern transit system is based on multiple forms of public transport. The “Gautrain” is a public train and bus system, that moves people from high residential areas.

Taxis, known in Ghana as “minibuses” and private vehicles use designated lanes designed to allow faster travel for vehicle carrying a higher number of people.

The Rea Vaya is the most recent addition to the puzzle. A special express bus, it moves on designated lanes that private cars cannot use, with fewer stops, conveying passengers to their final destinations faster.

The Rea Vaya bus at one of its stops near Milpark-Johannesburg

The Rea Vaya BRT was introduced in 2010 as part of an ambitious mission to drive home the image of Johannesburg as a ‘World Class’ city, providing safe and reliable transport during the FIFA World Cup hosted by South Africa that year. Rea Vaya, which translates to “we are going” has since served its purpose of providing a solution to the persistent mobility problems of the nearly 1.5 million transport users in the city.

Today, it is serving as the biggest transport intervention for residents in Johannesburg, providing many buses which carry 90 passengers. The bus system carries up to 16,000 passengers on an average weekday.

The Rea Vaya Bus is not only decreasing traffic congestion and energy consumption for this major African city of 5 million people, it is also providing a more healthy and environmentally friendly option by reducing vehicle emissions.

On a November morning last year, passengers waited to access the Rea Vaya station. Riders purchased smart cards and loaded them with credit for use on the bus. They swiped for access to the bus stop and then waited for the next bus, which came quickly. Its arrival was announced on a loudspeaker.

The Rea Vaya Park Station Extension in Johannesburg

The bus filled quickly on the short trip across the city. Passengers took the available seating. Others chose to stand with the aid of straps and rails to hold on to. Passengers said the bus was convenient, clean, and fast.

“We use the bus so that we can be more punctual,” said Sandile Ncube, a grade 8 student of the Phoenix College of Johannesburg, between stops. “It is faster and safer than walking by foot in the morning. It is more dangerous in the morning than in the evening when it’s full of people. From my house to school is 15 minutes by bus.” Ncube told this reporter that he and his friends are happy about the government’s decision to introduce a BRT system because its consistency ensures they are always on time to school.

Isaac Mujinga is an international student from DR Congo studying English at South Africa’s Wits University. He is a big fan of the bus which he was using to travel the 6-minute trip from Braamfontein to Johannesburg. Mujinga said the Rea Vaya bus is an ingenious initiative and is cost-effective.

“Always I take the Rea Vaya bus because it is good for me,” Mujinga said. “I’ve been using it for three months and it’s not expensive. I like it. The taxis cost a lot, others like Bolt (the phone-based car hire service) are expensive but the bus is not expensive. I’m very happy with the bus system.”

Reducing Johannesburg’s rapidly growing air pollution problem was also a driver in the decision to introduce the Rea Vaya as well as reducing its output of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The buses are “green”, running on low-sulfur diesel that emits fewer pollutants.

The Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit system is the single largest climate change initiative undertaken by Johannesburg according to report by the Johannesburg City Services.

A side view of the Park Station in Johannesburg

The bus saves a million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions, reduces nitrous oxides by thousands of tons per year and particulate matter, the most dangerous vehicular emission to human health, by hundreds of tons annually, according to the New York City Global Partners, a non-profit organization housed in the New York City Mayor’s Office for International Affairs.

And in less than five years after its introduction, the Rea Vaya saved South Africa as much as $890 million in travel time, road safety and clean air, according to a New Climate Economy report cited by Quartz.

More than 7,000 kilometres away from Johannesburg in our city of Accra, Ghana’s capital, the transportation system faces glaring challenges. Vehicular congestion and traffic have been a problem for many commuters within the city for decades, particularly at peak times, when everybody either needs to go to town for the day’s business or return home.

Accra is Africa’s fastest growing city with air pollution rising at rates that alarm experts. At least 28,000 Ghanaians die prematurely each year from air pollution while many more are sickened. Transport is the biggest contributor to Ghana’s air pollution accounting for 39 per cent according to Clean Air Fund.

‘Trotros’ are notoriously big contributors to the problem. The site of black smoke pouring from the exhaust pipes of the buses is common.

A mini-bus (tro-tro) in Ghana producing thick black smoke.

Many drivers and people who work at bus depots report major health consequences that health experts say are likely caused by exposure to the smoke. Unlike in Johannesburg where good public transport options are provided by the government, most Accra citizens have no choice but to use privately owned minibuses, known as “trotros” as their primary means of transportation.  About 70% of Accra’s commuters rely on trotros.

Successive Ghanaian governments have made efforts to introduce alternative transportation interventions over the years. The Metro Mass buses were introduced in 2003 in a public private partnership with the government owning 45 percent of shares and six institutional investors owning the rest according to the Metro Mass Transit Limited website.

Under this partnership, several fleets of buses were provided in major cities including Accra, Kumasi, and across the country, to serve over 500,000 passengers daily. They offered scheduled trips on intercity and intra-city routes.

Though it still operates, the bus service has been reduced to providing travel between regions rather than the original goal of serving as an alternative faster transport option within the city. The company came under massive criticism for its abysmal performance after it was hit by allegations of mismanagement and corruption after a report filed by Joynews in 2018.

In 2016 the Greater Accra Passenger Transport Executive (GAPTE) introduced a Bus Rapid Transport system known as the Aayalolo Bus Service. The Aayalolo bus was piloted on only one of the city’s transport corridors, Amasaman to the CBD corridor in Accra, and was to serve as an alternative to the traditional semi-formal system of public transport.

The BRT initiative was implemented through a collaboration between Ghana Urban Transport Project, supported by the Ghana government, the World Bank, the French Development Agency (Agence Française de Development, AFD) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and cost about $151 million, including both buses and infrastructure.

Today, the system is fraught with a myriad of challenges, leaving commuters forced to patronise ‘trotros’, a documentary by Ghana's local news outlet, TV3 revealed.

The ‘Ayalolo’ BRT Bus captured in traffic with other vehicles in Accra.

Though it was supposed to operate on dedicated lanes to increase speed, in reality Aayalolo was only able to travel on a dedicated lane for about 5 percent of the 21 km journey between Amasaman and CBD (Tudu), making it not so ‘rapid’.

The majority of the buses, with the capacity to take 80 passengers, equipped with GPS, cameras, television monitors and mobile charging points have been operating as ordinary commercial vehicles around the city, according to Emmanuel Appor Managing Consultant of Environfin Consult, an environment consultancy firm.

The bus was supposed to employ the e-card payment method, but it was forced switched to taking cash only after the technology was unavailable according to a report by Ghanaian researchers Gordon Abeka-Nkrumah, Patrick Opoku Asuming and Henry Telli.

Appor says Ghana’s only rapid public transport system failed because of politicisation, management failure, and opposition by transport operators.

“The whole thing was introduced by the NPP government and when there was a change of government,” says Appor. “They changed the staff that were there and people who were involved in the training when you change them, you tend to have a lot of difficulty. There was hesitation from a lot of these transport operators especially the private transport operators because they knew their jobs will be lost. So buses were at the tarmac for more than two years before they were distributed to other places for use.”

Desmond Appiah, who heads the Clean Air Project in Ghana, says a lack of commitment by government is the reason Ghana’s transport air pollution woes persist.

“There is a public transport system that needs to be improved. The government already has policies on e-buses but these are major infrastructure cost ticket items,” says Appiah suggesting the government is underestimating the health costs of not investing in clean rapid transport. “The data and research all show that buying those buses may cost us $US2 million but the cost for health will be $10 million. No one will have to tell us to invest in those electric vehicles to reduce pollution levels.”

A scene at Accra Central

Appor urges the government to form cooperatives for the purchase of low-emitting fleet of buses under a well-organised Bus Rapid Transit system.

“We need to remove all these rickety vehicles from the road,” says Appor. “We need to form cooperatives and get rid of these buses. Roadside air quality is very bad here compared to other cities in Africa. We should have a vehicle scrap policy; you trade your old buses for new ones. It needs commitment because other countries are doing it and Ghana is no different.”


This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Clean Air Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the Clean Air Fund. The funder had no say in the story’s content.

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