Joburg Expat: Joburg Traffic

May 25, 2010

Joburg Traffic

Traffic in Johannesburg is bad. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, trying to sugarcoat it. Granted, there is a lot of construction going on building up to the World Cup in June (and everyone keeps insisting it will all be finished in time but I find this highly unlikely at the speed at which things are happening here), but most of the traffic problems are due to overcrowded streets, too few lanes, and no synching of traffic lights (excuse me, “robots”).

A gazillion people pour into Johannesburg from the townships early in the morning, and then back in the evenings, so that if you live along one of those routes, you are bound to end up in traffic unless you hit the road before 5:45 am. Luckily the sun rises around that time too (no daylight savings time), so at least you get to enjoy a nice sunrise while “queueing.” The problem is – if you’re lucky enough to have had a look-see trip prior to your move – that your realtor will take you places at a very civil hour, like 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and that everything will look just fine, and if you do take the trouble to look at a map or even program your navigation system, then the commutes all seem very reasonable, but the reality could be much different. If you’re planning to move and work here, make sure you try out your work route during rush hour when you look at different neighborhoods, just so you’re not unpleasantly surprised on your first day!

A big problem adding to the traffic woes of Johannesburg is that there is no public transportation (at least officially, more on that later). There is a project in the works called Gautrain, and I think the idea was to have that completed in time for the World Cup too, but here I also have my doubts. I did find a website where you can check out progress on tracks being laid so far, which is kind of cool. In case you’re interested, we live somewhere on the outer edge of the large orange circle, to the left of Midrand.

There is, however, an unofficial mode of public transportation, the minibus taxis - mostly white Toyota minibuses – that transport people to and from the surrounding townships into the business centers of Johannesburg. And they’re not precisely taxis either, as they only drive along certain routes, more like buses. They seem to be completely unsanctioned and unorganized, but without them I’m sure everything would break down completely. You have to be careful around them, as they stop wherever they please to pick up passengers, quite abruptly if need be, and then pull out into traffic again just as abruptly and without warning. They will also drive off the shoulder of the road to bypass a traffic jam and then squeeze in again at the front, and always get away with it. Everyone just accepts that this is so, and I have yet to see the driver with the nerves to resist yielding when a minibus taxi muscles its way onto his lane. I have to say, however, that if I ever have to squeeze into the other lane last minute, these taxi drivers are usually more forgiving than other drivers and make space for me. Most of those vans probably have several hundred thousand miles on them and you frequently see a broken-down one by the side of the road, hood open with many heads bent over the engine. You will also occasionally hear stories of these taxis being in accidents where the paramedics pull out something like 40 people from a single vehicle. No kidding. It has become a pastime of sorts for me to count people in the taxis around me when I’m stuck in traffic, admittedly a morbid pastime, but I can't help looking.

Little things you will learn: Instead of a green arrow for a right turn (which, if you remember, is like our left turn) you get a blinking green arrow which is very easy to miss. And there is no turn on red. Which I’m actually quite glad about, at least for now, so that I can stop and gather my wits about what needs to be done to turn into the correct lane. There is also quite a bit of honking and impatience and gridlock at any time of day here, making you feel like you’re driving through New York without the skyscrapers. Amazingly, the one thing that works like a charm is when traffic lights (excuse me – robots) are out of order (quite frequently, I must say). They don’t turn to blinking, they are just completely out. Everyone then treats it as a four way stop and politely waits their turn, when normally politeness is not something to be found on Joburg roads.

Intersections take some getting used to as well: There isn't a single one, big or small, where there isn't at least one person selling trinkets or handing out fliers or begging. You'll have to get used to weaving around all that foot traffic. But it can also come in handy. Even though I was warned to never ever open my window at an intersection, I've made some very useful purchases that way. Here are some Joburg traffic scenes:

I haven’t been stopped by police yet, but sometimes there are roadblocks where everyone gets frisked, and I’ve been told it’s good to have cash with you because otherwise inevitably something wrong will be found with your paperwork. Theoretically you are allowed to drive with your American drivers’ license (at least according to research I can now not quite remember how thoroughly I conducted beyond jumping to the first Google link I found) but I went ahead and got my international drivers’ license through AAA before leaving the US, which was recommended to be on the safe side, especially when travelling to other African countries. That license is valid for a year at a time, after which you are required to obtain a South African license. I’m almost giddy with the thought that I can delay THAT errand until next year!