The transport and mobility sector have undergone significant change in recent years. Disruptive technology and the sharing economy have completely transformed the mobility space, creating new markets with a more on-demand, consumer-centric model. Taxi apps like Uber and Lyft have revolutionised notions of accessibility, convenience and predictability in public transport.

But in South Africa, approximately 42.4 million people still rely on traditional modes of public transport. In the Western Cape province, 52% of households use minibus taxis (unscheduled privately-operated minibus services carrying passengers), while almost 22% of households use trains.

Historically, the previous apartheid regime segregated South Africans by racial group and assigned specific race groups to specific areas. Through the Group Areas Act, people classified as coloured and black were forced out of the city and economic hubs, to live on the outskirts where there are few job opportunities.

The impact of this can be seen in the spatial layout of Cape Town, in that poor people often have to travel long distances in their daily commute. With no option but to use the inadequate and informal modes of transport, their journey is often unpredictable and high risk.

Decades of underinvestment in infrastructure and public transport have brought about the informal minibus taxi industry. The minibus taxi industry emerged to fill the unmet transport needs of most of the population. Over time it has become the dominant transport mode due to its expansive network of routes in both urban and rural areas.

However, in this competitive and poorly regulated system, taxi associations fight for passengers on high demand routes and commuters are often caught in the crossfire of taxi violence. In this over-traded environment, vehicle maintenance is often a low priority, and drivers can be unlicensed, which means that taxis are often unroadworthy or unsafe. Add to that the lack of taxi schedules, and there is no certainty that passengers will get to their destination safely and on time.

The rail industry has its own challenges. The Metrorail service has been crippled by a lack of investment and maladministration, and a lack of security at station platforms has given rise to rampant vandalism and arson attacks on trains.

While trains are more cost effective to use than minibus taxis, they are often late, or can stop on railway lines for hours, with no indication of what the problem is. When the train service is running, commuters are often squeezed into overcrowded carriages and their daily commute is dangerous and undignified. The reality is that, for many, the choice is either an unsafe taxi journey or a dangerous train journey, with no regularity of travel times, critically impacting job security and the economy.

These challenges are not unique to South Africa and can be found in many countries characterised by skewed development. But with the recent shifts in the transport sector, many are looking to technology as a potential problem-solver to improve predictability for commuters.

With the rapid expansion of smartphone penetration globally, mobile applications are becoming a crucial ally to empower commuters with information about their commute, giving them more choice and certainty when planning their journey. For instance, in India, apps like Ola Auto track auto rickshaws or cab shuttles, while in West Africa, GoZem tracks the informal motorcycle taxis.

In South Africa, the WhereIsMyTransport App allows users of formal public transport to get data on route and timing in major cities, but information about minibus taxis are limited. In the region of Johannesburg, the Khwela Taxi Booking App connects minibus taxi drivers who agree to provide certain services to their passengers, but only a minority of drivers are willing to do so.

The solution to overcoming the institutional challenge of tracking vehicles might lie in peer-to-peer (P2P) communication between commuters. P2P can help generate the data and information which allows users to track unscheduled transport services.

Nicolette van Niekerk, transport specialist at Pegasys Strategy and Development, says: “For commuters relying on minibus taxis and trains, this information will increase the predictability of their journey, allowing for better time management, route choice, and improved personal safety. It will also give lower-income communities access to a more consumer-centric model, usually reserved for premium services like Uber.”

The success of P2P technology relies on its users’ willingness to help one another. In South Africa, this willingness is embodied in the Ubuntu philosophy, a Bantu term meaning "humanity". Ubuntu speaks of a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.

It is evident that technology has the potential to address development challenges through improving mobility. It presents opportunities to integrate informal transport systems into the mainstream.

Nicolette says: “These innovations in the transport and technology sector could be a big step in driving equitable development and upward mobility.” For countries like South Africa with complex mobility challenges, these tech solutions could be the disruptor that the public transport sector so badly needs.