Thinking about public transport in Johannesburg

In October Johannesburg is hosting the EcoMobility World Festival 2015 focusing on the possibility of an ecomobility future and making public transport, cycling and walking safe. As one might know, public transport is mostly limited to minitaxi’s here (kind of mini buses driving around Johannesburg) and walking is for the poor. The city is trying to improve the unsafe image of cycling by installing cycle lanes.

The Festival is a starting point for the city to improve public transport,walking and cycling in Sandton, the new business centre of Johannesburg. So far it has only been cars orientated, and a few are taking the Gautrain. It is interesting to see that the city of Johannesburg wants to close down some streets for pedestrians and install cycle lanes. In first instance it is temporary thing, but the mayor says it should become permanent over time.

Biking around

Biking around

In the meantime, cycle lanes have been installed in Braamfontein. It is very easy to cycle from University of Johannesburg to the University of Witswatersrand. I do it to go to these campuses for projects on with UJ and Wits or courses. So far I have met one other cyclist on this route. But I am enjoying the freedom and the spontaneous reactions from people from the street.

All of this got me thinking about this idea I had about a year ago. How come the public transport system in Johannesburg is so bad an unaccessible when it used to have a great working tram system and has so much opportunities to have a metro system? The city is now focusing on Transport Oriented Development plans that include mostly the expansion of the Rea Vaya, a rapid bus systems, which in my opinion is not the answer to the congestion and smog in Joburg.

I have been told that the tramtracks are still present, only covered with some asphalt. It was interesting to see the following maps and read the interesting posts (1 and 2) on the tram system which ran until 1961.I was pleasantly surprised to see that from the old CBD (nowadays hip places like Braamfontein, New Town, Maboneng) were all connected to the northern suburbs via the trams. How cool would it be to reinstall trams on these existing lines? How many people would be able to use public transport again and make contact with each other instead of sitting in your car alone in traffic?

But my real interest lies in the metro system. Obviously it is possible to install an underground, the Gautrain (built in 2009) proves this. And the success of the Gautrain has surprised a lot of people. What if we would use some of the mine shafts and tunnels to built a metro system which would link the old CBD with other parts of Johannesburg and would support the Gautrain and the tram system? The mining companies are having a hard time in South Africa due to strikes and low prices on the world market. They have a lot of experience with explosives and building safe mines. It could be a new market for them to invest in. The main thing is of course Johannesburg would have a proper answer to the congestion it is experiencing already and which is becoming the main problem for the city in the next few years.

The funny thing is that there was a whole plan in the 1970’s to built a metro system. According to this post on Heritage Portal the main reasons not to go ahead were: social interaction between white and black (Apartheid was ruling at this time), too expensive to construct and it would be difficult to change routes (obviously..). In Amsterdam (Netherlands) we also had plans for an extensive metro network in 1922 and again in 1968. They only constructed one line, the ‘Ringlijn’, at the time, but about 10 years ago they finally did start constructing the North-South line. By then the city was bigger and therefore it was much more difficult to construct the metro line.

Joburg the transportation challenges are much bigger, the city needs more accessible forms of public transport and all the skills are available. I’d say go for it! I’m planning on talking to some specialists (planners, engineers at mining companies etc) in the near future to see if there is a possible case here. I will keep you updated!

4 thoughts on “Thinking about public transport in Johannesburg

  1. Jan says:

    Dear Marrit,
    I like your blog: think big! E-bikes and a metro system combined? Solar energy enough over there…

    • Definitely! E-bikes are so great for this hilly landscape.The city is actually planning and building cycle lanes so this would be a great combination!

  2. Hi Marrit,

    I would love to come and bike in Johannesburg…. but first of all I think you touched an important key in your blog. If Johannesburg would like to move up in the Global City Index ( ATKearney) , accesibility and public transportation – as well as safety- are utmost important. The City Governement should be interested to have more than a coffee-chat with you, to explore dreams and possibilities!

    Francien de Groot

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