Meet Lesedi Mokoma, head a group of transport engineers investigating how growth in the public transport industry can be facilitated by by mapping the full value chain, including manufacturing, financing, policy and regulation.
Lesedi Mokoma is part of a crop of young research group leaders entrusted with the responsibility of charting an integrated transport agenda for South Africa. Mokoma’s mission is informed by her years of experience as a bus commuter, most of which is not pleasant. She commuted daily from Ga-Rankuwa to Pretoria, a 37km trip that required getting up at 04:30 am to attend school at the Pretoria Girls High. The journey at the crack of dawn evoked in her, at an early age, strong emotions and opinions on mobility, access and transport injustices in SA.
Now 35, Mokoma is a transport management design and systems research group leader at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). “The reason I do what I do is that I struggled with public transport growing up. My daily commute to school was not a pleasant one. My mother wanted me to get the best education but could not afford boarding at school,” she says. It was the exasperation from those four-hour daily bus trips that planted a seed in Mokoma that led to her enrolling for an undergraduate degree in civil engineering at the University of Cape Town. “Sometimes the bus would break down. I would get to school late and being late meant detention for something that was not in my control. I found the whole situation very unfair,” she says. Her mission was and still is, to change how South Africa’s transport is structured.
Mokoma’s public transport experience is not unique. Many working South Africans shuttle between their homes and work every day – some from as far as Mpumalanga – to earn a living. This, in her opinion, is largely because most South African cities are still highly spatially fragmented, owing to segregated and class-based colonial planning systems. However, Mokoma feels that the South African dream of efficient, affordable and integrated public transportation systems is achievable. “I may not be a major decision-maker, but I now have the potential through my research, to make a difference in terms of addressing this challenge which affects us all,” she says. Her group works on optimizing transport systems in Gauteng through interventions such as assisting the Gauteng Department of Roads and Transport with the General Household Travel Surveys to determine travel needs and patterns within the province.
The survey comprised of interviews with a sample of 37 000 households to establish their travel patterns within Gauteng. “We collect data from different modes of transport (buses, minibus taxis) so we can understand how these systems operate and also collect data from the users to understand why things are the way they are. We collect this data to inform decisions,” she says. “The current public transport system is not helping poor citizens and quite frankly, could be enhancing existing inefficiencies. There needs to be wide-ranging planning that increases accessibility and provides an integrated transport system for people located in the townships as well as in rural areas. The objective is to transform urban spaces by reducing travel costs and distances. “Look at cities like New York, Paris and London, for instance, there was a point where they realised the spaces were not working and cities had to be redesigned to reduce challenges like distance. “We need to find solutions that are African. We need to put emphasis on research to understand how a taxi operator and the taxi business work and what the core issues are. Only then will we be able to design systems that cater to our needs.
“New systems such as bus rapid transit systems are great, but they work in densely populated cities and not over long distances between townships and cities. Outside of the cities, we have this insufficient space to deal with in terms of transport.” She made an impassioned plea to decision makers in the public and private sector, “Invest in research and understand what the issues really are.” Mokoma and her colleagues at the CSIR believe that the transportation of goods, commodities and people is an important factor in the transformation of any nation’s economy. She spoke passionately about the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on transport in South Africa. “The essence of transport revolves around economic purposes, spatial interaction and social integration. The 4IR brings with it ample opportunities to address these challenges. Imagine the impact of ride-sharing apps in the minibus taxi industry, as an example. Drivers would know where people are so they would not have to be in a rush looking for passengers and people would start using public transport more.
Clearly e-hailing is another way of managing demand for public transport systems,” says Mokoma. She explains that her group is investigating how they can facilitate growth in the public transport industry by mapping the full value chain, including manufacturing, financing, policy and regulation. “We need to empower the public transport industry to embrace aspects of the fourth industrial revolution,” she adds. Mokoma credits her mother for her career success. “She always instilled this thinking that I must be able to stand on my own two feet no matter what happens; that I should get an education. “At the time she said that if I wanted to be an independent woman, I should study science. Given the almost obscurity of science careers, and specifically women in science, it’s pretty remarkable that I ended up at one of Africa’s biggest science, engineering and technology organisations.” She is currently reading towards her PhD at the University of Pretoria. Science AWARDS 2019 14 women in AWARDS 2019