June 1, 2011

Is There Public Transport in South Africa?

I was recently asked to write about public transport for the website Expatica and my initial reaction was to say “there isn't any in South Africa.”

But as you know, I can never be that brief, and lo and behold, I came up with a pretty long article. You wouldn't think so, but there are ways to get around the country, even if you’re not buying a car. So I wanted to take some time and share with you more or less what I shared with Expatica’s readers.

Typical off-road overtaking maneuver by taxis in Joburg
The reason I was at first so skeptical about public transport is that the one form of transport you see everywhere in South Africa isn't one any expat should or would willingly use. I’m talking about the minibus taxis transporting masses of people to work every day and annoying most of us car owners with their aggressive and frankly dangerous passing maneuvers. But while they do fulfill an important role - if we’re honest with ourselves, we should be grateful for the fact they’re carrying 15 people a piece, often more, and that without them traffic in Joburg, already a nightmare during rush hour, would come to a complete standstill – they do not strictly fall into the public transport category at all. They are run by privately owned companies which are known to operate with mafia-like methods to keep public buses from infringing on their turf.

Evening traffic on William Nicol coming from Sandton
Which brings me to the next mode of transport, buses. That’s where South Africa is so obviously trailing behind the rest of the world. Metrobus  claims 80-plus routes in the greater Johannesburg Metro, but you will rarely see one of their buses. What is probably needed is closer to 1000 routes to even make a dent in the transportation needs of a city this size. I hope that improving bus service is on the city’s radar, because the minibus taxis are actually quite expensive for the people who use them and have a horrific safety record, but I doubt it will happen anytime soon. Each time there is an election in South Africa (we just had one May 18th), lots of promises of “service delivery” are made, only to be forgotten or ignored after the election is safely tucked away once more. Cape Town’s citizens might fare better, as its ruling governing party, the Democratic Alliance, is said to have made bigger strides in service delivery, even to its poorest areas. If that’s true, Cape Town’s new rapid bus service (MyCiTi) might offer much more than Metrobus does here.

If you’re interested in sightseeing, there are buses for that: City Sightseeing Cape TownCape Town Day Tours, and companies like Themba Tours in Soweto. If you need to get anywhere long-distance, you can also take a bus, like Greyhound or SA Roadlink, but why you would do that instead of finding a cheap domestic flight is beyond me. If you really want to see the countryside (and perhaps reminisce about the old colonial days), take one of the luxury trains from Johannesburg to Cape Town or the other way around (Blue Train, Premier Classe, Rovos Rail). It will be quite an experience, if you have the time for it. You can even take your car with you, for extra convenience but also extra cost.

Picture courtesy of  Gautrain
Speaking of trains, how about commuter trains? If you've watched the World Cup, you might know that Johannesburg now boasts the Gautrain, a high speed rail service that was completed – to the amazement of most locals – in 2010 and has been running (on time!) ever since. It’s clean and safe, but again there aren't nearly enough routes. You can go from Sandton to the airport and that’s quite nice, but guess how you get to Sandton from, say, Montecasino? With a bus! And since they haven’t yet come up with some dedicated bus lanes, you are still stuck in the same traffic we are all stuck in, so you might as well be stuck in it in your car and bypass Sandton altogether, unless of course you live there. Cape Town also has a commuter train, the Integrated Rapid Transit (IRT), and it’s been around much longer, but I have heard that IRT trains are notorious for not being on time. At least they are inexpensive and the scenery you will enjoy along the way is beautiful.

I mentioned cheap domestic air travel. That’s definitely the way to go between Joburg, Cape Town, and Durban, as well as some other destinations in Southern Africa. It’s so much faster (2 hours to Cape Town) and you avoid all the problems of road travel. Like the fact that just because it looks like a highway on a map, it isn't necessarily one in real life. More like a dirt road with many stop signs and the occasional goat roaming into your path (okay, I'm exaggerating, but we have encountered plenty of cows and goats on our road trips, as well as having to go right through a town even though technically you're on a highway). South African Airways goes pretty much everywhere, but you might get better prices with some of the discount airlines (Kulula, Mango, 1Time).

When you arrive at your destination, get a rental car (the one travel-related item that’s surprisingly cheap in South Africa). All the major companies are represented, plus some local discounted ones (Global Rental, Johannesburg Car Rent, Pace Car Rental). Or arrange for airport transfer, either through the hotel or one of these companies: There & Back Shuttle Service, Shuttle Direct, Exclusive Travellers, Corporate Cabs. If you’re travelling with four kids and ten suitcases, like we do, you will need to book airport transfer even if you own a car. Most likely you will be able to make arrangements with your company's driver.

If you’re still determined not to buy a car in South Africa, you’ll have to get around with a personal driver (a service some companies offer) or with a taxi (such as Taxi Service JHB or Cabs for Women), which is relatively convenient if you live in a central location like Sandton. Still, taxis don’t just roam the city, you have to call ahead and order them, which is totally not compatible with my propensity to not plan ahead, ever (as Noisette will readily tell you).

Plus, in a country where “just now” could mean next week, I’m just not sure I would want to be stuck anywhere without my own ride.


Jo-burger said...

Good day

I am a South African and I appreciate the fact that you're educating other foreigners about our country and dispelling myths in the process. However I do take exception to you saying that there are 'highways' in SA that are actually dirt roads with goats roaming. I'm personally am not aware of any highway (N-roads) that is advertised as such but in reality it's a dirt-road. SA roads (N1,N2)are some of the best in the world outside developed countries.

Sine said...

Well - I took some liberty in the interest of entertainment! However, we've taken the N2 towards Sodwana Bay before, and while it looks like it should be a 4-lane highway all the way through, we passed through many towns where what we thought was a highway came to complete stops many times as it wound its way through these towns. I admit it never became a dirt road, other than where there was construction (we counted 11 one-lane closures that trip!) but there were definitely goats! And cows!

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the BRT or Rea Vaya bus system in Joburg - it's operational between CBD and Soweto and extentions north of the centre will open in 2012. There's also a handy circle line arond the CBD which is fine for tourists to get around. These buses are clean, safe and cheap to use and use dedicated lanes to avoid traffic jams - and in my experience they even run on time. The routes are not planned with the Fourways crowd in mind though...

(Just came across your blog via 2summers; I'm at http://injoburg.wordpress.com/ :)


Sine said...

Jeroen, thanks for the update - I had never heard of either one of them. Maybe my blog should be more accurately called "Dainfern Expat" because that is where most of my life happens! thanks for expanding my Joburg horizons...

Great blog by the way over at In Joburg, I like your sense of humor.

Jeroen said...

Jo from Past Experiences often does city centre and Soweto tours, on foot and using the BRT buses (a great novelty for the locals who never used them, or buses in general). I can recommend it to the family if you haven't visited the CBD yet. See http://www.pastexperiences.co.za and http://joburgtourguide.blogspot.com.

Sine said...

Thanks for the links Jeroen, will put it in my "story ideas" and "what to do with visitors" pile. We've done the Soweto tour and gone on our own several times, but not the CBD yet.

Christie said...

Sine, meant to actually post on this entry, not the yellow fever one!
(But you can delete both comments) :)

Sine said...

Got it Christie, no worries, I deleted your other comment with the email address and sent you an email with more info. Looking forward to meeting you too!

Shuttle Services said...

Hi Sine,

I wanted to let you know about our new website that lets people quickly and easily find, compare and book airport shuttles and shuttle services within South Africa.
Would you be kind enough to have a look and let me know whether you think this would benefit your readers.


Sine said...

Hi Marc,

I had a look and yes, I think this would benefit my readers as I've had inquiries about airport shuttles before. But seeing as it would also benefit you for me to supply a link, may I kindle refer you to my advertising tab at the top of the page for more info? You may always contact me via joburgexpat at gmail dot com, and I can send you more advertising information via email.

Regina Hampson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
W. A. Jeffrey said...

Very comprehensive coverage. You certainly put some thought into this post. I don't think I would feel comfortable using a minibus taxi either and I agree that it is a problem that they don't obey the traffic laws. As to the "mafia-like tactics" I would say that is more to do with the general lawlessness that has developed in SA over the years than any flaw in the market per se. There are several different ways to improve the minibus system without resorting to creating or expanding a taxpayer funded "public" alternative.