Johannesburg:
A Smart City?

Discovering the facets of Johannesburg's transportation sector as efforts are made to fall in line with global developments.

By Rofhiwa Madzena, Paidamoyo Muzulu, Gabrielle Nina Mitch,
Tadala Kaledzera, Kizito Shigela and Karen Mwendera

For someone visiting the city of Johannesburg for the first time, the hustle and bustle during the rush hour can be a breathtaking experience. Women clutching their handbags, rushing to the metro train station just before the door closes, a “tout” in a crammed township yells to woo passengers as a man is roasting chicken legs nearby. As one of Africa's busiest and smartest cities, Johannesburg boasts a complex network of transportation that people use to simplify their mobility as they go about their daily businesses.

This is the reality of Unatshilidzi Khangale. The 21-year-old is a university student living in the north of Johannesburg. Unatshilidzi is no stranger to the morning rush experiences by the thousands of commuters who come from all parts of greater Johannesburg to get to work or to school. We meet her at 6:30pm, as she waits for the metro bus to take her home after a long day.

As the bus approaches, a glimpse through the window shows that it is full. Unatshilidzi , along with many others, may have to stand, holding onto the railing throughout the trip.

Johannesburg has multiple modes of transport, buses and minibus taxis which take you along more than a thousand routes. They are widely used by many people. Despite the complex nature of the transport system in this sprawling city, the average time that most commuters spend walking to the nearest bus station is hardly ten minutes. That’s if they live in the main city. 

“I wake up at 04:30 every morning because the bus passes my street at 06:20. I’m out of the house at 06:15 and sometimes, I’ll catch whichever comes first, the [mini-bus taxi] or the metro-bus,” Unatshilidzi explains.

smart city johannesburg

As the first full bus rapid transit (BRT) to be implemented on the African continent, Rea Vaya bus system is probably the most important mode of transportation. It improves the mobility of millions of commuters in the densely urbanized corners of Johannesburg. 

Despite its booming economy, South Africa is still having a huge income disparity among its people with majority of them not owning a car. However, the fact that the Johannesburg hosted several games of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, triggered a big interest for the authorities to improve transport systems to live up to the projected image of being a world class city.

Unatshilidzi was 14 years old when the system was introduced. As the youngest of four children, public transport was a vital part of how she and her siblings travelled to and from school on a daily basis. “We never really got to use the BRT system when it was first introduced, it was just for the main city and unless we were in the CBD, we still had to use taxis or the metro-bus,” she remembers. While it’s safe, efficient and computerized, commuters like her are forced to walk long distances before reaching the nearest bus station.

The concept of Rea Vaya (“We are going”) was adopted to create a strong identity and brand image to enable the movement especially for those with mobility impairment. Most commuters say the system is very useful, especially in areas around the mini bus pick up and drop off zones which are often unsafe during the night. 

Rea Vaya system, which was established to provide safe, affordable transport, represents a significant improvement in transport and accessibility for the commuters of Johannesburg, providing job opportunities for taxi drivers and operators. 

Apart from the buses, city dwellers have the option to utilize the trains to move around the city.

Johannesburg’s train system is a cautionary tale of two classes — the haves and the have-nots. In its continued bid to create a smart city in line with global developments, the City of Johannesburg has left existing structures and their beneficiaries at the sharp ends of a society that is moving forward.  
The city's main station, Park Station, is the central hub of the Metrorail train system and the Gautrain train system. Many people who pass through Park Station everyday do so without acknowledging the existence of the Gautrain. Not because it lacks presence, but because it is costly and unfortunately for people like Unatshilidzi , its speed and convenience cannot be enjoyed because it only passed through major city centers: “It’s not close to the university and it definitely does not pass through the north where I stay. Building it was a waste of taxpayers money, if you ask me,” she says.

The metrorail train system is one of the cheapest forms of public transport in Johannesburg. Over the years, it has played a pivotal role in decongesting the city, improving accessibility while reducing costs.

However, one of the many downsides to the system is not just the conditions that commuters are forced to travel in. More importantly, while the economic hub has grown over the years, significant areas are not served by Metrorail in the northern and western suburbs of Johannesburg. These include Sandton, Randburg as well as some parts in Pretoria. These parts are now served by the Gautrain, a rapid-rail system that paved the way for innovative transportation in Johannesburg through inception.

Commuters in Johannesburg now have a choice between two classes of travel: the Metrorail or the more luxurious, fast and efficient Gautrain. The latter is generally less congested than the former, but this luxury comes at a price.

Unfortunately, many commuters are confined by the limits of their pockets and thus convenience and efficiency of the Gautrain has seemingly been created for those who can afford it.

It is estimated that half a million make use of the Gautrain on a daily basis, while a mere fraction of the estimated 2 million make use of the Metrorail trains. Both systems have access control points. Commuters making use of the Metrorail can buy their tickets from the ticket sales office. Just a few hundred meters away from the Metrorail, the Gautrain uses an alternative, digital way of ticket sales. Commuters purchase a gold card which they are able to pre-load with funds and can then tag themselves in and out of various stations.

A single journey from Johannesburg to the township of Naledi costs R4 on the Metrorail, while a journey of similar distance on the Gautrain costs around R40 from Johannesburg to Midrand.

Cycling is the smartest mode of transportation around Johannesburg. Although a huge number of people are willing to cycle long distances and save a sizable amount of their income, observers say the conditions are still not good for the cyclists.

David Du Preez, the chairman of Johannesburg Urban Cycling Association, says apart from the costs, cyclists don’t have to queue for minibus taxis and run the risk of being late for work. “A cycling journey may be shorter than a (minibus) taxi if commuter’s destination is off the taxi route and the last element is a long walk”, he notes.

Initiatives like David's could remain stagnant. The current City of Johannesburg administration has put the implementation of cycling routes lower on its priority list. It has claimed that creating cycling infrastructure is a luxury the city cannot afford.

One individual who is implementing an increased culture of cycling in his community, the township of Alexandra, is Jeffery Mulaudzi, founder of Buvhi Bicycle Tours. He has implemented a bicycle sharing system. However, one of his challenges is that not a lot of people cycle from Alex to Sandton because of the high density of traffic. 

To curb this, he's looking forward to the bridge being built over the M1 interchange for cyclists and pedestrians.

A study commissioned by Johannesburg Development Agency to establish the feasibility of designing and implementing a safe pedestrian crossing over Grayston M1 Interchange suggests over 10,000 pedestrians travel between Alexandra and Sandton across Grayston M1 interchange on daily basis.

This means that commuters are exposed to high speed drivers, or move through unsafe walkways and dangerous construction sites. This needs to change as more and more people look at walking or cycling as an alternative and affordable mode of transport.

The bus finally comes to a stop at a station about two kilometers away from Unatshilidzi’ final destination: home. We shuffle our way off the bus with her and wait for a final minibus taxi which will take her to her final destination.   

She smiles as we wait and says: “This is my life every day. To me, a smart city is an accessible city. Using the fact that I have to take two buses or taxis to and from school each day instead of just one makes me wonder about all these new modes of transport and whether they have been created for everyone."

Perhaps it’s high time for the city authorities  to promote more  low carbon emissions as means of transport that are in line with the concept of creating smart cities. This way, the majority of city dwellers can use these modes of transport and serve the planet from hazardous emissions and at the same time save costs.

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