Shosholoza Meyl

Pictures from the 27-hour trip on the Shosholoza Meyl Trans-Karoo from Johannesburg to Cape Town:

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Rea Vaya – BRT in Johannesburg

Rea Vaya, Africa’s first true BRT system, commenced operations in Johannesburg on August 31, 2009 (see a video of the first day of operations here). Phase 1A includes the T1 trunk line, which uses articulated buses to convey 30,000 daily passengers through the 21 enclosed stations between Thokoza Park in Soweto to Ellis Park via the Central Business District. It also includes circulatory buses in the CBD and neighborhood feeder routes in Soweto (see route maps here). Construction of additional phases is ongoing; the system will eventually criss-cross the city, with a corridor running north through Sandton to Sunninghill. Rea Vaya faced violent opposition from some sectors of the preexisting minibus taxi industry. Strong municipal leadership and a focus on building meaningful relationships between stakeholders has enabled the system’s success, not only as a transportation corridor, but also as a tool to realize higher aspirations for Joburg’s urban space.

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Joburg’s MMC (Member of the Mayoral Committee) for Transport, Rehana Moosajee, has been one of the driving forces behind Rea Vaya. She graciously shared with me her perspectives on the system’s development and arranged for me to take guided tours of the its routes and central control center. In 2006, Joburg’s newly elected mayor decided to elevate transport to a stand-alone portfolio within the city’s government. This act underscored the importance of public transportation, and it was with a clear mandate that MMC Moosajee and others in the government began exploring options to transform the city’s mobility options. They invited leading BRT proponents to give a presentation, which included a showing of Making Things Happen with BRT. This short film promises numerous benefits for the urban environment (and politicians’ careers) from a high quality, world-class, subsidy-free transport mode. Leaders simply need to have the “guts,” “bite the bullet,” and take the first steps towards building a BRT system.

Determined to move forward with BRT, the city began laying the groundwork for Rea Vaya. They anticipated strong resistance from existing minibus taxi operators, whose industry and self-governance evolved on the margins of apartheid governmentality. The informal transit sector simultaneously contested and enabled apartheid practices, and in today’s Rainbow Nation, their market niche continues to be “the preservation of apartheid spatiality,” as South Africa’s Deputy Minister for Transport Jeremy Cronin put it. Given the minibus industry’s historically complicated relationship with government, the city government knew that building trust would be vital, and they accordingly employed a number of key tactics:

  • Giving taxi industry leaders “exposure to comparable informal operators.” When touring other cities that had also formalized previously informal systems, minibus industry leaders sensed an “element of resonance.” Realizing that informal operators in South Africa were not unique, and that others were better off for having embraced change, helped motivate industry leaders to move forward in cooperation with the city.
  • Using city money to hire technical advisors of the industry’s choosing, thereby enhancing the industry’s trust in government
  • Building strong, trusting relationships before beginning independently-moderated, formal negotiations
  • Seeking out visionary leadership in the minibus industry
  • Highlighting growing public pressure on the industry

Thus, more important to the project’s success than the hard infrastructure of dedicated lanes or stations were what MMC Moosajee called the “softer, silent issues behind enabling transformation.” Attending courses on “change management” with taxi industry leaders helped them understand, “If you don’t make a transformation, it’s to your own detriment.” For such an intense focus on relationship-building, “political involvement and will in driving the initial phases are key.” In Johannesburg, these “softer issues” were not for the faint of heart. MMC Moosajee’s house was attacked in the middle of the night, and she now has two bodyguards. As she told me, “I don’t think people realize how much guts you need…maybe it’s better you don’t know up front.”

Such courageous and visionary leadership, both on the part of the city government and the minibus operators who formed PioTrans, enabled the inauguration of Rea Vaya within three years of its proposal. Though other African cities, like Dar es Salaam, resolved to implement BRT years before, Joburg was the first city on the continent to successfully implement a full BRT system.

I talked with a number of Sowetans about their opinions on Rea Vaya. A vendor in the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication told me she still prefers minibus taxis, since they tend to pick passengers up closer to their homes and people are used to the way they work. In contrast, a university student I talked to on the inbound T1 shared that she loved the new service and used it often; her only complaint was that at peak periods, the buses are too crowded.

With approximately one million boardings per month, Rea Vaya has indeed been successful in terms of carrying passengers. It has also helped improve a number of larger urban issues: improving environmental quality, overcoming the legacy of apartheid spatial planning, bettering communities, and instilling a sense of decency in people’s daily commute. In short, MMC Moosajee believes that Rea Vaya has “changed peoples’ perspective on their own space.” When the system is complete, a station in Soweto will look the same as a station in Sandton; Rea Vaya is a world class transport system in the heart of a township. Earlier this year, New York City’s planning and transportation commissioners made their own visit to Soweto and shared how impressed they were with the Rea Vaya. Indeed, delegations of transport planners from around the world have toured Rea Vaya to learn more about successful BRT implementation.


The City of Johannesburg has compiled an excellent self-guided bus tour of Soweto. My South African hosts and I decided to do the tour one Saturday morning. Serendipitously, we reached the Jo’burg Theater Rea Vaya station just as city council members were boarding a special Rea Vaya bus for their own guided tour of the corridor. We were invited to join them, and I loved the tour and the chance to talk with some of the city and PioTrans officials.

We disembarked in front of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s house, then continued with the official delegation up Vilakazi Street past some captivating public art and the former residence of Nelson Mandela (now a museum). At the memorial to Hector Pieterson, we turned and went down the hill, hopping on a Rea Vaya T1 bus and continuing to the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. Rea Vaya does an excellent job of providing easily-comprehensible, efficient, and reliable transportation service to Soweto. Not only does this provide a much-needed service for Soweto’s residents, it also enables residents from other parts of South Africa to more comfortably visit these historic sites. Many of those who visit for the first time are pleasantly surprised by the quick trip on Rea Vaya and the warm welcome they receive in Soweto, a place that, in the country’s historical memory, is far-removed from Johannesburg.

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Gautrain, one of the world's newest high speed rail systems

Gautrain, one of the world's newest high speed rail systems

To begin my time in Johannesburg, I was able to travel from my house in Cape Town to my hosts’ apartment in Johannesburg without stepping in a car. Traveling to and from the airports on either end, I took advantage of Metrorail, Cape Town’s Airport Shuttle, Gautrain, and a Gautrain feeder bus. Riding Gautrain, Gauteng Province’s new high speed rail line, for the fifteen minute trip from O.R. Tambo International Airport to Sandton was quite enjoyable.

The following day, I sat down with Dr. Paul Vorster, CEO of ITS South Africa. He shared his insights on the history of transport in South Africa and its relation to new developments like intelligent transportation systems and high speed rail. He compared the inauguration of Gautrain to the arrival of the first Ford Model T in Cape Town’s harbor. By itself, each event accomplished relatively little, but they both signaled an impending paradigm shift. In his words, “South Africa is busy with a transport revolution,” and Gautrain is leading the effort to make public transportation “sexy” to discretionary riders (car owners).

Gautrain’s focus on attracting relatively wealthy car owners was an issue raised by many of the project’s critics, who questioned the logic of spending R28 billion (R3 billion of which was paid by concessionaire Bombela) on a project for people who already owned cars when so many of the country’s non-car-owning households face serious mobility constraints. Dr. Vorster’s response would be that congestion, especially along the Ben Schoeman freeway linking Johannesburg and Pretoria, is crippling the economy; if Gautrain gets the stock exchange president to his office on time, he can spend more time creating jobs and less time sitting in traffic. Gautrain is not in itself a comprehensive mobility solution, but rather a “strategic intervention” that can help catalyze a public transport mindset for the whole country. Indeed, one-time critics of the project, such as Transport Deputy Minister Jeremy Cronin, have recognized this paradigmatic value of the project:

Transport Deputy Minister Jeremy Cronin hoped that the Gautrain would change mindsets around public transport. He also hoped that this would encourage the public to choose rail instead of road transport. “Indeed this event has presented an opportunity that we can all draw lessons from. It has generated the energy and drive that this country will need,” said Cronin who also enjoyed a ride on the train.

Gautrain has become a luxury brand, with one of the hotels in Sandton even being named The Gautrain Hotel. High-end redevelopment around Sandton alone is valued at about R25 billion. Thousands of passengers have been able to appreciate Gautrain’s sleek looks, smooth ride, automated fare collection, dedicated security, and convenient 12-minute headways during peak hours. While the airport link has been well-utilized, the associated feeder bus services have not been. This may change when the full 50-mile link to Pretoria and Hatfield begins revenue service at the start of July. The video below gives an entertaining and informative overview of the project:

Minibuses of Johannesburg

The City of Johannesburg has posted this quick overview of minibus taxis, the city’s most prevalent public transit mode. In part:

Some of the taxis are rickety affairs, held together only by their owners’ prayers and the Grace of God. They look more like old car parts assembled in a hurry. Many however, are roadworthy and reasonably comfortable.

The success of any taxi driver depends on the number of passengers he can ferry on any given day. To maximize profit, drivers often overload their vehicles, drive at high speed and stop without warning on awkward spots to pick up passengers, much to the annoyance of other motorists. Rules of the road are suspended as drivers compete for the bottom line. Passengers are sometimes treated to the spectacle of two taxis driving dangerously close to each other as one driver asks for change from another. This recklessness has not endeared taxi drivers to law enforcement agencies. Johannesburg’s newly established Metro Police Service has cracked down on unroadworthy taxis and gone to the extent of impounding some. These tough measures have helped restore a semblance of order to the industry.

The same page also has a guide to the fourteen most common hand signals one needs to flag down a taxi in Jo’burg. Unlike in Cape Town, minibuses in Jo’burg generally don’t follow fixed route numbers. Instead, waiting passengers must use the appropriate hand signal until a driver who can conveniently stop at the indicated destination picks them up them. If, for example, you want to travel to Orange Farm, hold out a hand and rotate it like you’re showing off an orange.

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