Taxi strike cripples Joburg’s commuters

Monday’s taxi strike in Johannesburg highlighted the general failure of the city’s public transport system. A city with Johannesburg’s infrastructure should not collapse when one of its public (or common) transport suppliers strikes. However, a big part of Johannesburg’s population could not get to work on Monday.

Why did people get stuck in a city that has a BRT system (Rea Vaya), trains, and normal buses (Metrobus and Putco)? Why does the Rea Vaya almost always run empty? Why do people queue for more than 45 minutes at the Metro Mall taxi rank (also known as Bree Taxi Rank) at 7 a.m. in the morning to go towards Randburg when a bus follows exactly the same route, at the same price or even cheaper, just three blocks away?

After eleven months living in Johannesburg without a car I have faced the challenges public transport presents in this city. My most reasonable answer to these questions is just “a lack of information.”  Users of one means of transportation do not seem to know how others work because there are no maps, signs or schedules available for the public. Most buses run with no signs or outdated ones. Hand taxi signs are a mystery one has to discover every time a new route needs to be ridden. Bus stops do not have any kind of information on them. BRT bus stop staff are not able to provide much information about the routes either. Route information just provides a list of names, and people get confused and frustrated. Trains with no names wait in platforms without signs or time indications, but passengers sit patiently inside hoping they’re in the right one.

Monday’s taxi strike left hundreds of confused commuters on the streets, opting to jump into buses, unsure about where they were heading. Some buses passed by people waiting at bus stops without stopping, with no apparent reason. People gathered in Ghandi Square and wandered around, asking bus by bus how to get to their destinations. Long queues formed outside the Metrobus information centre (usually empty), where staff members spent all day giving directions to people. And, finally, to highlight the irony of the situation: paper copies of the bus routes (if the information provided in those papers can even be considered a “bus route”) were soon exhausted because the copy machine was not working and the technician was stuck with no taxis in Soweto.

A similar situation played out with the Rea Vaya. Bus stops in the inner city typically had about 40 people waiting outside, under the rain, while buses where running practically empty because staff members were not able to supply transport cards fast enough and answer confused new users’ questions. In the city’s more peripheral areas it was the same situation as always: empty buses and empty bus stops.

Proper signs, maps and an information campaign could increase the efficiency of Johannesburg’s public transport system at a very low cost. Spending on Rea Vaya’s construction and operational expenditure was the biggest portion of the largest budget awarded to the Johannesburg Development Agency, in 2009. Last year, the city pumped R4.1 billion into transport. Based on this spending, shouldn’t Johannesburg’s citizens ask their local government to make sure these services perform at more than a small fraction of their capacity?

image via wikimedia commons.

Blanca Calvo is an architect from Barcelona. Her professional career took a new direction after studying two master’s degrees in International Cooperation and Urban Development in Germany and France. Currently living in Johannesburg, Blanca works for uTshani, a local grass roots organisation supporting people living in informal settlements. Her main interest is the study of informal systems and how the incorporation of its core values can improve our cities today.

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