skip to Main Content

What do we mean by low carbon transport? Understanding how people move in Cape Town

What do we mean by low carbon transport? Understanding how people move in Cape Town

Author: Lisa Kane
Reviewed by: Zanie Cilliers, Adrian Stone & Megan-Euston Brown from
Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA); Philip van Ryneveld, Marco Geretto &
Marcela Guerrero Casas from Open Streets Cape Town.
Data Analysis and Modelling Contributions: HJ Nel & Zanie Cilliers.
Infographics: Concept by Lisa Kane and Open Streets Cape Town.
September 2016



1. For an overview of the state of low carbon transport worldwide see Sims R., R. Schaeffer, F. Creutzig, X. Cruz-Núñez, M. D’Agosto, D. Dimitriu, M. J. Figueroa
Meza, L. Fulton, S. Kobayashi, O. Lah, A. McKinnon, P. Newman, M. Ouyang, J. J. Schauer, D. Sperling, and G. Tiwari, 2014: Transport. In: Climate Change
2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
[Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S.
Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
Transport is a significant; rapidly-increasing and stubborn-to-change system contributing to climate change through the
burning of mainly petrol and diesel. It is a particularly significant emitter of carbon, one of the greenhouse gases. The
ideas of “low carbon”, “sustainable” or “green transport” are reactions to the knowledge that without changes to our
worldwide transport systems, growth in transport emissions, and therefore climate change impacts, is almost inevitable.
Experts report that there is no single solution to the transport emissions challenge and that technology advances in fuel
efficiency cannot resolve the problem. A basket of measures will be needed. Africa currently accounts for less than 5% of
worldwide carbon emissions from transport, but it is expected to be a growing share .1


Prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in
Johannesburg 2002, little attention was paid to the impacts
of transport on the climate in South Africa. The focus of
energy and climate change policy-making was largely on
electricity production and industry. The focus of traditional
transport planning at the time was on reducing congestion,
with some road safety improvements in mind. More
recently there have been efforts to improve public transport
(although climate change mitigation has not been a major
motivation for this. A major reason for public transport
improvements has been to enhance mobility). The push
for public transport can be seen across the country with
initiatives such as Gautrain, Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit and
MyCiTi Bus Rapid Transit coming on-stream since 20102.
In more recent years, awareness of the role of the
transport sector in addressing climate challenges has
increased although national frameworks which consider
carbon emissions specifically are still relatively limited. At
a national level the Public Transport Strategy and Action
Plan and the National Transport Master Plan call for a
consideration of carbon emissions. The South African
transport-climate change commitments are outlined in
the National Climate Change Response Policy3. The City of
Johannesburg has probably been the city with the most
substantial set of programmes to address transport energy
and emissions challenges. These have included better public
transport, attention on eco mobility (pedestrian and cycle
infrastructure and visible community campaigns) and a big
push towards spatial development that prioritises public
transport networks. Some of these initiatives have filtered
down to the mid-sized cities and towns, but there is still a
capacity gap in bringing energy and emissions awareness
into spatial development and transport planning. The City
of Cape Town has recently increased attention on pressing
transport energy and emissions problems4.

There is also an emerging non-governmental sector
paying attention to transport, climate change and related
concerns with urban form and access, as demonstrated by
WWF’s Low Carbon Transport Programme and Sustainable
Energy Africa’s work in several local municipalities across
Africa, many with a low carbon transport element5. The last
five years has seen the emergence of practical responses
to climate change from transport activists. This has been
particularly strong in the cycle advocacy space.
In terms of policy discussions, ideas of Transit Oriented
Development (TOD) appear to be gathering traction at
local level6. Travel Demand Management (TDM) strategies
for the central city aimed at curbing the growth in single
occupancy vehicles have been discussed and can support
emissions reductions, but as 85% of all Cape Town trips
take place outside the central city boundaries the Travel
Demand Strategies will need to reach beyond the central
city in order to be effective for substantial emissions
reductions7. Furthermore, any policy moves are somewhat
countered by ongoing calls for traffic congestion relief and
the reality of year-on-year increases in car ownership.
In reality, despite academic work, policy and activist pushes,
carbon emissions from transport have not yet reduced or
even stabilised in South Africa. The policy levers that will
be needed to contain or reduce transport emissions are
well understood. How hard government will need to invest
resources in these, and exactly which levers will yield most
results in order to reach energy and emissions policy goals,
is only now beginning to be explored. Going forward, even
more specific and detailed visions are needed8.
This briefing paper starts to fill some of the knowledge
gaps, using detailed household travel and trip diary surveys
from the City of Cape Town.
A brief history of low carbon
transport in South Africa

2. Boulle, M., van Ryneveld, P. (2015) Unpacking implementation –
understanding the case of the MyCiTi. Cape Town. MAPS. WWF South
Africa (2015) WWF Brief: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Passenger
Transport Sector in Gauteng: an investigation per income group.
3. WWF South Africa (2012) WWF Brief: Low Carbon Frameworks:
Transport. Overview of Legal and Policy Instruments and Institutional
Arrangements relating to transport, land-use and spatial planning in
South Africa.
4. City of Cape Town and Sustainable Energy Africa (2015) Cape Town
State of Energy report. City of Cape Town.
5. See and

6. “Transit Oriented Development” (2016) City of Cape Town http://www. accessed 8/9/16. For
thinking on TDM for central Cape Town specifically see Behrens, R.,
Adjei, E., Covary, N., Jobanputra, R., Wasswa, B., Zuidgeest, M. (2015)
A travel behaviour change framework for the City of Cape Town. 34th
Southern African Transport Conference, Pretoria.
7. The Cape Town Partnership (2013) The Low Carbon Central City
Strategy. The Cape Town Partnership.
8. Figueroa, M.J., Fulton, L. and Tiwari, G. (2013) Avoiding, transforming,
transitioning: pathways to sustainable low carbon passenger
transport in developing countries. Current Opinion in Environmental
Sustainability, 5:184–190.


Urban transport in any city is a complex and multi-faceted
phenomenon. Trying to understand the climate impacts
of such a complex and rapidly changing system can be
challenging. Despite this, some things are reasonably well
understood and established (the relative energy efficiencies
and emissions of vehicles in use, for example).
The graph below compares energy usage across vehicles.
We know from this that on a vehicle-for-vehicle comparison,
electric cars are more energy efficient than minibus taxis.
But thinking only about vehicles is highly misleading. We
are concerned about the energy-efficiency of moving
people. Some vehicles, such as public transport vehicles,
typically carry many occupants and so we get a very
different picture of energy efficiency of transport when
we compare the energy efficiency of passenger movement
instead of vehicle movement. The graph also shows how

cars, even hybrid cars, are currently inefficient energy users
due in part to the low occupancies of use. While hybrid
vehicles are manufactured for optimum energy efficiency,
the way cars are used in our current society (that is, driving
around with most seats empty most of the time) makes a
hybrid car an inefficient way of moving people around. The
various bus and taxi options are half as energy intensive in
moving people compared to cars. Rail is the least energy
intense mode (that is, it needs the least energy to travel
a passenger-km). This is thanks in part to the technology
and partly to the typically high occupancy of trains in South
Africa. Walking and cycling, though, are the most energy
efficient modes of transport. They use no fossil fuels
directly (although some energy is, of course, used in food
production). Walking or moving by bicycle uses no or only
very light vehicles and so they are the least energy intensive
modes of movement.

Energy efficiency and emissions – the
important vehicles-people-occupancy link

Data: City of Cape Town, 2013 and Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA). Analysis: Zanie Cilliers, SEA


Data: City of Cape Town, 2013 and Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA). Analysis: Zanie Cilliers, SEA
Looking at the climate impacts of transport modes weakens any argument for electric cars in
South Africa, at least in the short term. In terms of emissions intensity, electric cars perform
poorly in this comparison, largely thanks to the relatively dirty South African electricity
production which is largely based on emissions-intensive coal sources. Low car occupancies

exacerbate the problem (this picture changes, though, if we assume sufficient nuclear-
generated or renewable energy sources are built).

MyCiTi buses fare well on climate and energy indicators given the relatively new, energy-
efficient and low carbon-emitting fleet. Minibus taxis, though, also fare well on this comparison.

Although many of the minibus taxi vehicles may not be as modern as MyCiTi buses, they are
relatively light vehicles which are well occupied for much of their operating day.


9. Cape Town Household Travel Survey (CTHTS), 2013.
The data used for this briefing paper captured all ‘modes’
of moving around the city, including walking, and gave most
detail for the first trip of the day to either work or education.
A smaller, more detailed survey looked at trips across the
whole day. From that all-day survey we know that “going
to work” accounts for less than a quarter of all trips across
the day (although going to and from work is the main reason
people travel). We also know that in Cape Town, for every
two morning trips to work, there is one trip to a place of
In Cape Town, ‘car drivers and their passengers going to work’
account for 24% of all morning trips. ‘Walking to education’
accounts for 16% of all morning trips. Thinking instead about
the distance travelled in the morning, ‘car drivers and their
passengers going to work’ account for 30% of the distance
covered by people. Although walking to school and places of
education accounts for a large proportion of all morning trips
(16%), the distances covered are relatively small. Walking to
school and other places of education only accounts for 2% of
the distance travelled in the morning.
By who, when, where and why
are transport emissions generated?

Data: City of Cape Town, 2013, Table 10. Analysis: HJ Nel and Lisa Kane

Who is using the transport system, where, when and why is less well-understood than vehicle energy intensity and
emissions factors. This leads to the problem of knowing precisely where and how to make changes to the system. Below
we unpack the rich picture of passenger transport in Cape Town, using the latest available comprehensive data from 20139.

Thinking about transport
beyond the congested
morning peak
Although morning peak travel analysis is useful it
can paint a distorted picture. Approximately 30%
of trips take place in the morning peak period,
but that leaves 70% which take place outside
those peak morning hours. For an energy and
emissions analysis, these trips are as important
as morning peak studies.
Thinking ‘beyond the peaks’ also challenges us to
think about the social role that transport plays, in
giving people access to things other than work and
schools: to shopping, health and other services,
and to each other.


Travel by minibus taxi (including
employer buses), regular bus and train
users going to work, account for 55%
of the distance covered by people in
the city in the morning. MyCiTi (which

in 2013 was at an early stage of roll-
out) accounted for less than 0.5% of

the passenger-kms travelled in the
For morning trips to education,
the proportions of passenger-kms
from the various modes are fairly
evenly distributed at around 2-3%
each. Bus and train use dominate
the longer education trips. Walking
and car passengers dominate the
shorter education trips. Cycling
and motorcycling account for small

proportions of education passenger-
kms (<0.5% in total).

Driving to work dominates the
passenger-km profile of morning trips
(25%), followed by bus (18%), minibus
taxi (14%) and train (13%). It’s unclear,
however, how many of the ‘work’
trips also involve dropping children at
school. Employer transport accounts
for a surprisingly significant amount of
passenger-kms to work (5%).
Looking at trip speeds and the travel
distances in the morning across
the City, a fairly consistent picture
emerges. Residents from Mitchells
Plain/Khayelitsha face both the
longest and the slowest work trips.
This data highlights the ongoing legacy
of apartheid and the travel barriers
daily faced by residents in the South
East of the city.
Breaking down the data into roughly
equal income class groups10 (where
class 1 is low-income and class
5 is high-income) shows a fairly
consistent picture for ‘travel time
budgets’ across income groups,
with education trips on average of
around 30 minutes, regardless of
class. Work trips are between 50
and 60 minutes.

10. The questionnaire contained a question on income groups, but only had a 56% response rate. An ‘asset index’, based on amenities available to the
respondent was developed. A comparison was made between respondents who actually reported an income group and the groups created using the
asset index, and the results compared favourably. For simplicity in presentation, the more common term ‘income group’ is used instead of ‘asset index’.
Data: City of Cape Town, 2013, Table 3. Analysis: HJ Nel and Lisa Kane

Interrogating further, we see that morning trips for the poorest are largely
walking or on public transport, with very few energy-intensive car trips
made in this income group.

Data: City of Cape Town, 2013, Table 7. Analysis: HJ Nel and Lisa Kane


For the middle class, almost a third walk to school or work and over
45% move by public transport. The emissions-intensive car accounts
for a fifth of all trips in this group.
For the highest class, the emissions-intensive car trip dominates and
walking accounts for less than 10% of morning trips. We can see then,
how the extent of walking and individual car usage in a person’s daily
life is defined by class.
Thinking across gender lines reveals interesting differences in how
men and women are moving to work. The graph below shows how
men dominate energy-intensive car driving, while women are more

likely than men to be car passengers. Women use the less energy-
intensive bus and minibus taxi modes in greater numbers than men.

This finding compares well with analyses of the Nelson Mandela
Municipality, where men were found to use cars more. There, 28% of
all trips by men were made by car compared with 22% by women11.

11. For recent South African gender and income class transport analyses see Venter, C.J. and Mohammed, S.O. (2013) Estimating car ownership and transport
energy consumption: A disaggregate study in Nelson Mandela Bay. Journal of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering 55(1); and WWF South
Africa (2015) WWF Brief: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Passenger Transport Sector in Gauteng: an investigation per income group.

Data: City of Cape Town, 2013, Table 2. Analysis: HJ Nel and Lisa Kane

Income, energy and
This data shows that high income groups in
Cape Town are predominantly car users and
thus are energy- and emissions-intensive in
transport terms.
This confirms work from Nelson Mandela
Municipality where it was found that the
highest income 20% of the people consume
about 80% of the transport energy.
Analysis of Gauteng transport data found that
the 20% highest income group was responsible
for almost 60% of passenger transport


Data: City of Cape Town, 2013, Table 12. Analysis: HJ Nel and Lisa Kane

Thinking beyond work and education trips in the morning peaks shows the full complexity of why people move. Shopping,
in particular, accounts for almost 10% of all day trips during the Monday-Friday week. Visiting and picking up or dropping
off others, recreation and medical trips collectively account for almost as much activity as shopping. These, and the poorly
understood weekend trips, are all important to consider in targeting emissions reductions.


Car use and emissions

Putting all of this information together (vehicle energy
intensity, vehicle occupancy, and patterns of travel) helps
us to arrive at a fairly complete picture of Cape Town’s
movement patterns, and how much carbon is emitted by
passenger transport.
Although car use accounts for less than two thirds of
the total passenger kilometres in the City, it accounts for
over 85% of the emissions. This is particularly alarming,

given the tendency for car ownership to increase as
GDP per capita increases. Despite significant investment
in public transport systems such as the MyCiTi,
and other public transport investment during the last 20
years, these are not yet carrying enough passengers to
significantly have an impact on carbon emissions from
transport in the city. Much, much more will need to be
done, and on several fronts, to have an impact on transport
Data: Various. Analysis: Zanie Cilliers, SEA


Possible carbon emission scenarios

1. Improve the energy intensity of the car
Change….. of…. Reduces emissions by….
Car occupancy increases 13%

(An increase in all cars from 1.4 average
occupants per vehicle to 1.58)


Hybrid car use increases
at expense of conventional
petrol cars

(Hybrid cars, currently negligible in terms
of market share, increase to over 38%
of all cars driven)


2. Shifting to more energy-efficient modes of travel
Change….. From

(% share of passenger-kms)
(% share of passenger-kms)

emissions by….

Buses and minibuses
gain users from cars

Cars: 59%
Buses: 8%
Minibuses: 18%
Other: 15%

Cars: 49%
Buses: 11%
Minibuses: 25%
Other: 15%


Walking instead
of driving by car

Cars: 59%
Walking: 6%
Other: 35%

Cars: 52%
Walking: 12%
Other: 35%


Cycling instead
of driving by car

Cars: 59%
Cycling: 0.1%
Other: 41%

Cars: 52%
Cycling: 7%
Other: 41%


To test what would be needed to reduce transport
emissions, Sustainable Energy Africa analysed a number of
different transport scenarios for Cape Town using an energy
and emissions model. The model was asked: “what change
would be needed to reduce 2013 baseline emissions from
passenger transport by 10%?”

Two types of policy were tested: (1) Shifting from cars to less
energy-intensive modes such as public transport, walking
or cycling and (2) Improving existing cars by increasing
occupancy or increasing the proportion of hybrid cars.
Avoiding trips altogether through, for example, remote
working or land-use changes was not tested.


Data: City of Cape Town, 2013 and Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA). Analysis: Zanie Cilliers, SEA


So what to do?
When thinking in terms of short term transport system
changes, modest shifts from a large existing user base
may be more feasible than large shifts off a low base.
Increasing vehicle occupancy, for example, by 13%
yields the same emissions benefits as a 68-fold increase
in cycle use.
The current privately-owned car vehicle ‘fleet’ on the
roads is underutilised, with high numbers of Single
Occupancy Vehicles, and so is very energy-intensive.
Anything which reduces the energy-intensity of that
very large energy-consuming sector will be beneficial in
terms of emissions too.

However, such analyses do not take into account the
social, health and equity benefits of a well-functioning
public and non-motorised (or “own steam”, walking and
cycling) transport system which brings benefits to all.
Also, this analysis does not account for costs of
interventions. The 68-fold increase in cycle use
required to achieve a 10% reduction in emissions may
seem substantial, but this could come at relatively low
cost when compared to more costly high-end public
transport investments.


The analysis sends several messages:
– The transport picture is different, sometimes significantly
so, across income, purpose of travel and gender.
– Car use, especially single occupancy car use, is the
prime cause of emissions from the passenger transport
sector. Cars are disproportionately driven for work trips,
by the higher income groups and by men. This sector,
then, should be a key target group for reducing carbon
– When considering emissions, trips for all purposes
and at all times of day and week need to be taken
into consideration. This is different to the traditional
approach which has focused on congestion, during the
peaks, of work trips.
– The transport picture is dominated by walking, cars,
minibus taxis, rail and buses. Employer transport is
also important for work trips. MyCiTi, cycling and
motorcycling are currently used in small numbers.
However, each of these smaller modes is significantly
less energy-intensive than car use.
– The emissions benefits of battery electric cars currently
depend heavily on the way in which electricity is
produced in the country, and so on energy policy.
Future significant rooftop solar PV use, and concurrent
uptake of battery electric cars, could improve vehicle
emissions substantially, but are not at all guaranteed

– Increasing car occupancy is the change that would
deliver the most emissions reduction, for the least
change in baseline behaviour. This deserves much more
investigation and support. Technologies which enable
carpooling offer substantial possibilities for emissions
reductions at no cost to the state, and at reduced cost
to the consumer.
– Increasing public transport use also offers emissions
reduction benefits. In the case of minibus taxis, this
is at no direct cost to the state (in terms of subsidies),
but to compete effectively against the car, investment
in public transport lanes, enforcement of the same,
and partnering with public transport operators will be
The transport systems of South African cities are (as in
all cities) a complex mix of different interests. Reducing
emissions from transport needs to compete in political
spaces with many, sometimes competing, issues.
Technology from large private companies such as Uber and
Google look set to disrupt the status quo12. Fair access to
opportunities and support; safe and secure movement;
speed and congestion; private business profitability; public
sector constraints; and land development pressures can all
draw attention away from transport emissions concerns.
This is a challenge that will need much more action and on
many fronts.

12. “Uberworld” (2016). The Economist, 3 September, 2016.
Disclaimer: This briefing paper benefitted from reviewer comments but errors remain the author’s own.

Back To Top