No public transport, no life!
Public transport. It’s the bane of our existence in this country. It’s either unreliable or illogical or decrepit or unsafe or stupidly expensive. VITTORIO BOLLO has had enough of it. Or, rather, isn’t getting anything close to enough of it …
I miss walking in a city. I miss public transport. Period. I hate having to drive everywhere in Johannesburg. It is quite possibly the bane of my existence in this city. And that goes for most cities I visit in this country, including Cape Town, possibly the most ”walkable” city in South Africa – until you wish to venture beyond the CBD, City Bowl and the Atlantic Seaboard. In fact, I believe this lack of any comprehensive public transport to be the bane of most of our existence in this country where public transport is either unreliable or illogical or decrepit or unsafe or stupidly expensive.
You disagree? You think I am overstating the case? Let me tell you why I am so glad I didn’t finish school in this country, and why it has so much to do with public transport. We emigrated from Johannesburg to Portugal in 1987, when I was 17. Not only was Lisbon far more beautiful and exciting than Johannesburg, but I suddenly found myself living in a city which allowed me to explore to my heart’s content. For one thing, I could walk just about anywhere and everywhere, something even a relatively safer Johannesburg at that time did not easily allow. And I mean really walk.
Never did I have to worry about catching unreliable transport or being carted around by a parent or family friend, which I had to do when living in 1980s Johannesburg. And that was a Johannesburg still made up of a pre-gangster, liveable and middle-class Hillbrow (remember that?), a viable CBD (by day, of course) and a half-decent bus system. In Portugal I could catch a train to my suburban school, a bus to the beach and any combination of buses, trams and the metro when in the city centre. Not to mention nights out until 6am when I would board the train to Cascais, and catch a taxi back home. A proper, clean, affordable, Mercedes diesel taxi which I had all to myself, thank you very much. Showing off, am I? Perhaps – if only to prove a point: I considered myself lucky compared to my European teenage counterparts, who took it all for granted. It was pure liberation.
Truth be told: I didn’t get a driver’s licence until I was 24. There, it’s out! Imagine that dark little secret in this car-obsessed nation. I didn’t have a need for one. As a student living in England, I could get around by bus or cab as I needed, or, yes, pretty much walk everywhere if required. Or the train between cities and small towns or even to Heathrow or Gatwick, as I grabbed every opportunity to take holidays in Portugal (I hated UK that much), only too glad for its better weather and far superior food. Fast forward to my two years living as a grad student in Calgary, Canada and the same thing again – I never owned a car while there as a fantastic light rail network got me to most places, as did buses. Or, again I walked – and a lot.
My life in my late teens and 20s was happily shaped by public transport and never really needing a car. I have been back in South Africa since 1998 and, but for a brief sojourn of a few (hellish, let it be said) weeks in which I caught the infamous taxi that mar(k)s this country’s roads, I have been tied like a ball and chain to a car ever since. I shouldn’t even be ungrateful, given how many South Africans have to endure what passes for public transport in this country, whether they like it or not. Being unfair, am I? Oh, really? When was the last time you, the reader, had to catch a 16-seater taxi in any of our cities or towns? And, if you do – and I do genuinely feel for you – how many times have you said you would do anything, include sell your beloved grandmother if you could, just to own a car? Just so that you don’t have to put your life in the hands of madmen who seem incapable of listening to music at less than 120 decibels?
Public transport is not only environmentally better, it’s also a darn sight healthier. Invariably you still have to walk to get that bus or catch that train or metro or tram, whereas with a car it’s invariably the opposite – one literally drives from door to door. Walking becomes an unnecessary chore for a car owner. The Wall Street Journal published an article on December 28, 2011, stating how a study showed that people in New York City had the longest lifespan of any in the United States. Estimates claim that a full 50 percent of New Yorkers don’t even have a driver’s licence. The city that never sleeps is also a city that walks and walks, and catches a lot more public transport than any other US city, never mind any city in this country. No wonder New Yorkers are so healthy.
I know people who are quite glowing in their praise of the city-wide trains that run (when they do) in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, particularly the latter. Well, I have caught trains in Cape Town and Joburg in my time and they are hardly as clean, viable, reliable and extensive as comparable train systems in other cities, larger and smaller, worldwide. Where is the metro system that cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban not only deserve, but frankly desperately need?
And the Gautrain, some may ask? Please don’t get me started on that! It hardly constitutes viable public transport in that it serves so restricted a sliver of Gauteng. Try telling a person on the West Rand, East Rand, Pretoria East or Vereeniging – or most of Gauteng for that matter – to rely on the Gautrain. You may not make it out alive. The Gautrain is illogical, expensive and as unviable as a city rail system. Clean it may be, but it’s elitist to the hilt, and shouldn’t even feature in discussions on sustainable transport options for Gautengers.
Because that’s just it – we do not have clean, sustainable transport options in Gauteng, nor the rest of South Africa. We live in this car-fanatical society that is neither sustainable to planet nor even to our health. Traffic jams blight us, as I have ranted about in this magazine before. How many wealthier or middle-class South Africans really walk on a regular basis, unless it’s on a treadmill at some sweaty, pretentious gym? How many middle-class children or teenagers can aspire to discover and enjoy their cities or towns by foot or by using clean, safe and viable public transport, as I did back in Europe when I was that age, fuelled by wanderlust and freedom? What is ultimately that good or enviable about this car-obsessed, 4×4-deranged, unhealthy nation in which we live?
Yes, there are times that I love the selfish freedom of my car, of course. But it simply doesn’t compare to the real freedom of being able to hop on a train or a tram or a bus or a metro that is viable and inexpensive and actually takes me exactly where I want to go, with a little walk for good measure.
* Vittorio Bollo is a trainer in NOSA’s research and development department.