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A political economy analysis of transit corridors

This project seeks to understand the genealogy and the institutional political economy of what was previously called ‘Corridors of Freedom’, now transit-oriented development (TOD) corridors in Johannesburg, as well as, to a lesser extent, other more nascent forms of TOD in the Gauteng City-Region. TOD has gradually become, at national and metropolitan levels, the instrument for leading spatial transformation in the post-apartheid era, although there have also been more recent contestations. This focus on TOD - and specifically on improved mobility, accessibility and densification - can be connected to the increasing allure of the approach internationally in addressing growing socio-spatial inequalities. But it has strong local and national roots in a city marked by a particularly stark spatial paradox: i.e. the historically inherited but ongoing (indeed increased) spatial divide between housing location and employment opportunities for the majority of residents.

The Corridors of Freedom are already shaping capital expenditure in Johannesburg and are the conduit for intricate institutional and regulatory reconfigurations within the municipality. Meanwhile, the national Integrated Urban Development Framework (2014), aimed at guiding South African cities through spatial transformation, has explicitly endorsed the TOD model - and Johannesburg’s Corridors of Freedom as lead experience. However, many obstacles are likely to derail the initiative, including the technical difficulties of implementing such a complex urban intervention, its political management and (intended and unintended) complexities such as affordability and financial viability. The research seeks to answer the following question: is the globalising discourse / policy toolbox on TOD, and how it has been taken up locally, up to the task of leading comprehensive spatial restructuring in cities with distorted settlement patterns and politically and administratively complex and contested institutional settings.

This study will trace the political, institutional, technical and financial dimensions of the COF. It will document and unpack the factors leading to TOD’s adoption by the City of Johannesburg’s leadership and excavate the ‘localisation’ of mainstream interpretations of TOD that was operated in the process. Additionally, the study will act as a real-time research programme, mapping and documenting the evolving policy initiative both at a broad scale and through fine-grained case studies of developments in mobility nodes along the Perth-Empire Corridor, the most advanced corridor to date. The primary interest is institutional. We seek to understand how the governance of TOD priority programmes are embedded in fundamental components such as the spatial development framework (recently revised), infrastructure investment plans, articulated with land-use management practices. The fine-grained case studies will be analysed to illuminate the emergent governance dynamics of the governance corridors. This will surface and clarify the management of complex trade-offs that invariably surface in the pursuit of spatial justice.

The broader academic question, is this: Is the globalising discourse / policy toolbox on TOD up to the task of addressing the power plays that are involved with pursuing spatial interventions? Building on primary data and an analysis of differences between groups with and without access to the CoF, as well as focus group research, the study will critically assess preliminary developments with reference to the CoF’s stated objective, i.e. addressing socio-spatial inequalities in relation to access to opportunities, built environment, mobility and social integration in the city of Johannesburg. Finally, and given the ongoing dialogue with COF stakeholders built into the research methodology, it is hoped the research will feed into a larger public dialogue on TOD as an instrument of socio-spatial transformation in South Africa.

This research is conducted in partnership with the African Centre for Cities and the Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) at University College London (UCL).


An initial output from this project will be a Provocation entitled 'Unrealistic expectations, unrealised: bus rapid transit in Johannesburg', written by Jesse Harber and Megan Bryer. This is currently in production.

Colleagues at DPU (UCL), led by Dr Barbara Lipietz have been commissioned to work with GCRO on an Occasional Paper.



Jackie Klopp, Jesse Harber, and Magnus Quarshie (June 2018). 'A Review of Metropolitan Governance, Bus Rapid Transit and Minibus Systems in African Cities', VREF Research Network Workshop, Dar es Salaam, 25 June 2018.

Jesse Harber (February 2018). 'Unbuilding the apartheid city: Johannesburg’s Corridors of Freedom'. ACC International Urban Conference, 2 February 2018.

Jesse Harber (September 2017) "Unbuilding the apartheid city: Johannesburg’s ‘Corridors of Freedom’", International Initiative for the Promotion of Political Economy Conference, 14 September 2017.

Jesse Harber and Barbara Lipietz (September 2017) "Seeing like a transformative state: the Corridors of Freedom and the promise of spatial justice in Johannesburg, South Africa", RC21, Leeds, 13 September 2017.

Jesse Harber (July 2017) 'The impact of transport on Gauteng as South Africa’s economic heartland', Transport Forum, 6 July 2017.

Last updated 18 August 2019


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