Introducing a fabulous transit oriented lifestyle

Imagine modern South African cities where the lifestyle of the people is built around how they commute. Imagine integrated cities with seamless public commuting systems equal or even better than that of international world-class centres such as Hong Kong and Toronto.

A transit oriented lifestyle – that is the dream and ideal of Tshepo Kgobe, Chief Operating Officer for Gautrain Management Agency (GMA). It is also the mission of the agency to, in its quest to achieve this dream, burrow itself into the lifestyle of the people of Gauteng – and eventually the rest of South Africa.

According to Kgobe, GMA is currently implementing an approved strategy (which is modelled on the system in Toronto, Canada) that will bring Johannesburg, and the broader Gauteng, close to this amazing dream.

“We have just started a process of implementing our new strategy, which will make the Gautrain even much more user friendly. It will have more amenities that will benefit Gautrain users.

“The opportunity to start developing the strategy and ultimately, the fact that it was accepted by the Gautrain Board as the way forward in terms of how the organisation will change, has been a pleasure for me to create. Now we are excited about implementing the strategy,” he says.

Kgobe, whose job is also to manage the concession agreement for the operation of the Gautrain and take care of the expansion and the extensions of the system on behalf of the Gauteng Provincial Government, says, with the way that the pandemic has changed the world, it is now even more important that commuting systems are expanded and extended with that in mind.

“This means having the amenities that people require at the station – it is called transit oriented development. When you develop in and around the station in such a way, it will affect people’s lives. When I go about and ask especially young mothers why they would not take the Gautrain, they always say that the school run is in the opposite direction. But what if you could have the kindergarten at the station?

“And as the child grows, what if we build private schools into the station? And as the plan grows further, we could have a high school there and even eventually a boutique university. The bottom line is: if children know that this type of transport is part of their day, they will eventually become long-time supporters of the business because they have grown up commuting with their mothers taking the system every day. It is a very comprehensive lifestyle shift,” he says.

Modern stations

In this same space, he passionately throws in the idea of doing business in such venues and he envisions modern stations where people would be able to have meetings in designated meeting rooms, and even have lunch right there – without even having to leave the station.

“In many cities abroad the reasoning is that people do not want to live more than ten minutes away from any station and therefore their development is built around their transport, rather than in our case, where our transport is chasing the development, like we have always built.”

“The good news is that for the first time we now have a combined public transport plan or a combined transport plan as a whole. The growing Gauteng Together Through Smart Mobility Plan 2030 is a centralising plan and it not only centralises public transport, but also centralises how goods move in and around the city, how freight moves in and around the city, how we build up our roads and how the roads and the public transport inter-relate in such a way that they make sense.

“Public transport and personal transport should not divert from each other and exist in competing modes. In fact, they should actually complement each other,” he says.

According to Kgobe the GMA has had this vision for a while now, but the Covid-19 pandemic (and the way it has changed the way South Africa does business) has highlighted the relevance and importance of changing our current ways and lifestyle – all in the name of more convenient and seamless commuting.

“The strategy has been reorganised by the GMA before Covid-19 hit our shores. However, it was only in the middle of the mess that I realised that our plans will be much more important beyond Covid than what we had anticipated. It was a decision that I had taken much earlier. Covid merely showed us that we needed to have something like that system in the long term,” he told BBQ magazine.

Sustainability

But, Kgobe says even the system in Toronto has had its challenges and the new Gautrain system will be no different, with sustainability being top of the list.

“When we look at sustainability, it is not only about us. It is also about the people who are currently the users of the system. They are not the original sort of primary customer of the Gautrain, which used to be the people who drive cars.

“We have 11 000 parking bays and currently, at most, only 9% of bays are being used per day. That means there are 10 000 parking bays not in use. We are now at 28% of our previous ridership and our clientele is now a different market. This new market that has emerged in Gauteng are the young professionals, the inhabitants of these three level walk-ups that are being built all over the place. These people still need to commute to the office,” he says.

Therefore, he points out, it is key for the sustainability of the Gautrain, that the company builds itself to form part of this new customer – and, Kgobe says it is key that transport has to transcend itself from the utility to where it becomes a lifestyle product in a world where people’s lives revolve around their transport system.

Touching very closely on the issue of sustainability, is the question of mentorship and coaching, which lies very close to Kgobe’s heart. He believes that this kind of knowledge sharing is instrumental in ensuring a strong and knowledgeable future workforce and through that, contribute to sustainability in the industry. Sustainability, he believes, should be a joint responsibility between government and the private sector and that both should come together to for instance underpin what the GMA is doing.

“There are small things that can be done at a company and at a personal level to ensure sustainability. We have ample transport, but our biggest challenge is the logic of management. If it is required that everyone have to be at work at the same time, we are looking at overcrowding our commuting systems.

“There are simple things and flexible working policies that can be created by businesses, which will allow us to flatten the peak. That should not only be relevant now when we have to practice social distance, but in the long-term it will allow us to have a much more efficient system,” he says.

Covid-19

The road ahead for most businesses in South Africa is predicted to be long and certainly not without challenges and the GMA is not excluded from that – especially considering that tourism and the world of travel have been one of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic.

Overall, Kgobe says, like most, the business is struggling to get itself where it was before the pandemic. Currently it is operating at 28% of its previous ridership and naturally it has put a strain on the company’s resources. Going forward, with social distancing in the picture, commuting companies will need to work smarter in order to maintain a reasonable profit margin.

Kgobe says when looking at how to navigate the future of the GMA, they embraced modern technology to add value to their company, its offerings and ultimately its users.

“We looked at the advancement of our apps in such a way that people can book a seat and determine what level of social distancing they want and the app will advise which train will suit their specific requirements. We also turned to technology to, in the long-term, help reduce the level of overcrowding.

“The pandemic has, on the positive side, pushed us to innovate quicker than we had planned. It has made us think differently about how the user of the system actually behaves and how can we build our businesses in such a way that we add value.

“The Gautrain is a safe system overall, but when we had to reopen the system, I had to think at the end degree of the detail by which people would want to be safe travelling on the system,” he says.

Sound advice

According to the dynamic COO, the biggest lesson that he has learnt from the pandemic is that one should not think short-term. His advice is to resolve the current problems, but at the same time also to think about how to use whatever we develop now, to enable businesses in the long-term to manage and create sustainability and resilience – something that he admits they have never looked at in the past.

“Everybody looks at sustainability, but resilience is the ability for you to bounce back as quickly as possible. It is nearly a year since the virus started its path of destruction. Yet some of the businesses have bounced back to their pre-Covid numbers. That is resilience. And it is one of those things that we have to build into the long-term play for how the GMA and its system is run.

“The view of what work is and what the world of work will become has changed. It is no more about people acquiring the big qualifications. You still need those, but one of the most important things is business resilience. Managing your talent within your business is a life-long learning process and there is so much we can still learn.

“With life-long learning people can change their careers and make their own careers sustainable. It is not only about the sustainability of the businesses, but also about the sustainability of the people – the professionals behind the businesses. And it all ties in with life-long learning,” Kgobe concludes.