Taxi man

Thursday was No Car Day in Jo’burg, an initiative by the Metro Council that was greeted with incredulity by the car-owning classes.Writing this on Tuesday, I don’t know whether I’ll use public transport on Thursday. I’ll walk to work, as always — and if I have to go my Richmond office or to Braamfontein or the city, I’ll jump on a minibus taxi.

I don’t have a car, but I assume most Mail & Guardian readers do, so let me tell you what public transport is like.

Last Friday I gave a talk in the Pretoria suburb of Brooklyn.
In the past, I’ve taken minibus taxis, but on this occasion I needed to be on time with my suit not too crushed, so I went for the expensive option: taxicab from Richmond to Park Station (10 minutes, R30), Greyhound coach to Pretoria station (one hour, R50), Pretoria station to Brooklyn in an asthmatic taxicab (15 minutes, R50).

Coming back, I went for the cheap option. It would have cost me R6 to get one of Pretoria’s typically ordentlike (decent) minibuses back to the city, but someone offered me a lift. Then it was R17 on one of the big, new comfortable minibuses to Jo’burg. So far, so good — and great value for money.

The driver said he was heading into town via Braamfontein, where I know, from past experience, that you can jump off and intersect with the minibus route to Auckland Park. But he seemed to change his mind. He came through Hillbrow and we spent 10 minutes wedged between other gridlocked taxis at the intersection of Plein and Twist streets before pulling into the Noord Street rank.

The taxi I needed to catch goes from the Bree Street rank at the opposite end of the central business district (CBD). I often walk through town, but not usually at 5.30pm on a Friday, and definitely not in a suit.

By the time I reached Bree Street (still in possession of my wallet and cellphone), I felt I was home. Neither the dithering by Bree Street drivers over whether to go to Auckland Park or somewhere more profitable, nor the innovative route via Fordsburg and Brixton bothered me.

Does anyone even care about public transport in Jo’burg, about changing it into something car owners might choose? The question arose earlier this year when I was working on an article that required an interview at Nedbank. Its headquarters are in Sandton. I timed the interview so I could get straight there on the 8am bus from near my home.

Getting back again was a little more complicated. I had to change from one taxi to another, because buses only run during commuter hours. I should have asked Nedbank why, as an allegedly “green” bank, it chose to site its headquarters in a place that can only be reached by car.

In Jo’burg we accept as a given the environmental disaster of private car use. For the past few decades, urban planning has been carried out on the assumption that anyone who matters has a car. The result is a city whose far-flung office parks and malls make it almost impossible to create a public transport system that can reach everything.

With this in mind, I was delighted to hear of No Car Day, that Jo’burg has an Integrated Transport Plan, and to hear Jo’burg Metro Council officials talk as if they believe things can improve.

“The plan looks at serving all trips, with regular frequencies, throughout the day,” said director of transportation management Bob Stanway. What this means is I’ll be able to get to, and back from, my meeting in Sandton by bus. It also involves a move to a nodal system, rather than the current radial plan that funnels public transport users through the CBD whether they want to go there or not.

Amanda Nair, executive director of development planning, assured me the public transport plan has an “intimate conversation” with the spatial development framework of Jo’burg.

“In certain areas we aren’t promoting development because the cost of providing public transport to those areas is too high,” she said. “If we had a compact city, we could supply public transport efficiently.”

En route to Pretoria last Friday, I was depressed by yet another peripheral development, signposted north of the Woodmead interchange and equidistant from the perma-traffic of Sandton and of Midrand.

Nair admitted the shift in development thinking is still a matter of “baby steps”. Let’s wait and see. For much of the day, baby steps are quicker than the N1 through Midrand.