Zupco has come a long way from its return to urban public transport with a small subsidised bus service at the beginning of last year, but it now has a long way to go as it rebuilds the services that it inherited from its nationalised predecessors and moves towards something that can be first class.
Government is recapitalising the State-owned company with deals for new buses and regular deliveries of batches of 50 or so buses, it is going to take several years to build up a fleet adequate for the service desired using Zupco buses.
When the two predecessor companies were nationalised, they were operating over 1 600 buses in the cities and on their other routes, and private operators had a modest fleet serving Chitungwiza.
Since then a lot of new suburbs have been developed, villages such as Ruwa turned into proper towns, and existing suburbs expanded. It seems likely that a fleet of 2 000 to 3 000 buses could now be required for saturation services, especially in view of the fact that much of the new housing is on the outskirts of cities, requiring ever longer journeys.
A major innovation was the franchising and partial subsidisation of private buses, and then the imaginative extra step of bringing private kombis into the fold.
Covid-19 brought new impetus to the whole development by banning non-Zupco services, but encouraging private owners to sign up with Zupco.
That is technically a temporary measure, but there are many who would like to see this become permanent. For years other road users were complaining about the kombis parked across the side streets in the Kopje area, darting in and out of traffic, and stopping where they liked to pick up and drop off passengers.
A number of ineffective schemes were introduced to tame kombis, culminating in a totally daft scheme to ban them from central Harare altogether and forcing commuters to buy two or more bus tickets to get into the city centre.
The emergency Covid-19 measures of allowing them to operate under Zupco rules and control, brought order without disruption, another clear result of the clear and innovative thinking that marked so much of Zimbabwe’s response to Covid-19.
But that result came from the right question being asked: How can we provide adequate, but safe public transport using our present resources?
By asking the right question, instead of wondering how to ban kombis, the right answer emerged. Zupco comes out both as bus owner and operations controller, a unique Zimbabwean solution, but one that works, so can be kept.
Some legal changes will be need to convert emergency public health regulations into permanent laws and local authority by-laws, and this is something that the Local Government Ministry needs to be running and coordinating in consultation with city councils, but the basic framework of combining a ban and an open franchise arrangement needs to be preserved, along with everyone putting the passenger who needs to get to work and school and then back home at the centre.
The city centre terminuses were reclaimed for Zupco, bringing some order although pirate kombis are now re-invading sections of the Simon Muzenda Street terminus with zero action from Harare City Council and from the shouting at the south end of that terminus, it looks as though touts are starting to sneak back in.
Fares rose fast this year, and since Zupco kombis are allowed to charge twice what Zupco long buses charge, these Zupco kombi fares sometimes meet, or even just top, the fares that pirate kombis are prepared to take, at least in slack hours, and what some mushikashika charge.
But if Zupco is now charging viable fares, and by the look of it the company is, then that at least ensures the long-term sustainability of the company.
It effectively collapsed when political pressure kept fares below viability as inflation rose, although indifferent to poor management did not help.
But there is now, even with an undersized fleet, much that Zupco could do to improve services and start working with its passengers instead of returning to the attitude of take it or leave it.
Zupco bosses need to talk to their passengers, and probably need to start using their own buses to get to and from work, so they see exactly what is required.
One problem is the fare structure. This started with fares of 50c, 75c and, exceptionally, $1. Fares then doubled, and doubled again several times. So we now have fares of $16 or $24 for most long buses, and $32 for most kombis. These odd sums require $2 notes, which are now in exceptionally short supply.
Zupco did introduce the tap cards, a local technology, but very few buses have the card readers, and if they do then conductors are hiding them. So Zupco needs to enforce the use of tap cards, which are readily obtainable at its booths in city centre terminuses and from branches of the issuing bank and can be recharged at both, and at some shops. This will also prevent the odd corrupt practice that is already creeping into the system.
Terminuses need to be repaired and upgraded. Signs are rare. Shelters need repair, especially now the rains are starting.
Selling advertising rights on shelters could fund both signs and roofs. The city council could easily upgrade security, enforce litter laws and keep out the pirates with a modest deployment of municipal police. At the same time fixing public lighting would be a help.
Passengers complain of long waits. Zupco needs to respond, and that means reintroducing the inspectors who used to run the terminuses and were in constant communication with the control room, which in turn was in communication with drivers.
These days with mobile phones and satellite tracking, the management of a fleet should be 10-times easier.
The reintroduction of schedules, which will require talks with franchise holders, seems now to be possible with fleet expansion. When Zupco restarted urban services last year it issued charts of schedules, which were purely imaginary.
With the experience of almost two years it could probably now be more realistic, although having to remember that fleet use needs to be boosted in peak hours.
Zupco restarted urban services almost as an ad hoc emergency operation. It now needs to sit down, consult passengers, make its bosses ride buses so they know what passengers are talking about, and work swiftly towards building up a first-class public transport service as its contribution to Vision 2030. Many improvements can be done now, at little or no cost, so why not get a move on.