Living in Cape Town’s Observatory neighborhood in a few years ago, I used to catch a minibus taxi from my street corner to Woodstock several times a week. Sidling up to commuters returning from work on the packed van, I was sometimes uncomfortable, squeezed between larger-than-average fellow travelers and breathing in the muggy air. I’ve been annoyed by too-loud conversations and at times a little scared by the speed at which the taxis take the bumps in the road. But I’ve never felt threatened.
Like in other African cities, Cape Town’s minibus taxis offer commuters an affordable and dependable service, even though one has to travel in close quarters. They quickly became my preferred way of travelling around the city and my definition of the phrase “shared transportation.”
At the other end of the shared spectrum is Uber, a metered taxi service powered by a phone app. Its selling points are cleanliness and ease of use, as well as the ability to track your ride via GPS. You “share” the driver’s vehicle but enjoy the privilege of being the only passenger on board. Since starting up in Johannesburg and Cape Town last year, Uber has marketed itself as the safest way to get around South African cities – a big plus in a country perennially battling violent crime.
This made me think about what mode of transport I would choose next time I’m in South Africa. Would I jump into a busy minivan or hail a more costly, and more luxurious, Uber ride? I don’t know if I could save time either way. The Uber trip may be faster given there are no stops along the way, but minibus taxis pass every minute or two on busy streets, saving me some waiting time. And what if I just wanted to assure I get safely to my destination. Would the Uber be worth my money?
News about taxi accidents, often caused by lack of maintenance or dangerous driving, abound. In Johannesburg, the taxi ranks gained some notoriety for the “miniskirt assaults” of 2008 and 2012. There have been incidents of violent minibus “taxi riots” and drivers assaulting passengers that change their mind about boarding the vehicle. But it is hard to turn up stories of assault on passengers happening in transit.
Uber on the other hand got a lot of bad press in the US over two drivers allegedly sexually assaulting passengers earlier this year. Hailing a cab at the push of a button is convenient, and riding solo may be cushier than the minibus, but stories like this one are uncomfortable – and not unprecedented when it comes to traditional private cabs in SA.
Some women from Khayelitsha I asked about their travel preferences told me that minivan taxis are safer than the empty trains at night because passengers “take care of each other.” On board the minibus taxis there’s a sense of joint venture, where you’re nearly sitting on top of each other and handling each other’s money. In sharp contrast, Uber offers no sense of community at all. Ultimately, you’re on your own in the hands of the driver, for better or for worse.
There are many factors that make traveling hazardous, and you may run into decrepit vehicles, drunk drivers and busy streets no matter your choice of travel mode. To me there is one main tradeoff, and I believe that for bearing with the slight discomforts of the minibus taxis you get something much better in return: just like Jane Jacobs’ proverbial ‘Eyes on the Street,’ good seat neighbors protect you. A minivan may not be a limousine but the passengers are all in it together.
Maitagorri Schade is an editorial intern at UrbanAfrica.Net.Read older posts from this section