I have not been in Europe for about 1.5 years. Coming back after a long duration and having since observed various stages of Johannesburg’s BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system provides a pause for ponder. The first thing that struck me while in Amsterdam is how the interconnected system just works. Commuters have a deep relationship with their mobility. There is firstly the pecking order that one needs to respect when a visitor in town: cars give way to pedestrians no matter where you are, bicycles are next – both give way to bicycles and don’t dare walking in the biking lane. Finally, all give way for the tram. It’s just how the system works.
Beyond the benefits of exercise and savings, there is another benefit I observed. Because bikers are on the street everyday, they appear to have a relationship with their surrounding area. A deeper sense of awareness and community emerges. It reminded me of a group visit I had with Councillor Rehana Moosaji, Member of the Mayoral Committee: Transport. She felt strongly about imparting a sense of values to the city and transport is one mechanism to do so.
I believe that biking, walking and using public transport is a reflection of deeper values. Yes, there is the case of certain places such as Johannesburg where it is not easy to get where you want to, when you want to. Extending yourself to use these modes of transportation is a major inconvenience and quite frankly, often just not safe. I would however like to re-imagine how the province could be. How else could it be if BRT and the Gautrain were a success? The Soweto Express and Pretoria Express trains are already stories that we can be proud of and should celebrate.
The city of Amsterdam has recently introduced a chip card to use on the tram, quite like London’s Oyster card that one can use for all modes of public transport. This has been on the cards for Joburg’s transport system for several years. Some of us are however reluctant to change, in fact fear it – particularly when threatened by the taxi industry – but I believe that this is a hurdle to overcome. The taxi industry forms part of the developing economy model of the public transport ecosystem and has played an important positive role for decades.
The flip side of full dependance of public transport is that when things go wrong, they go badly wrong! Because of a snow storm, most flights out of Amsterdam were grounded for two days making it virtually impossible to get out of town. I had two cancelled flights and almost missed my third scheduled one to Copenhagen because most trams were not working due to weather conditions.
I finally arrived in Copenhagen luggage-free and went to get my 20h40 train to Arhus. The train departed exactly on time and even arrived at our destination a minute early. This is where public transport instills the value of discipline. A sense of national punctuality emerges and anything else is inexcusable. In Arhus, my friend and I decided to walk to his place instead of getting a taxi as I had no luggage. Since it was almost 01h00 in the morning on the quiet streets, I saw it fit to walk freely yet cautiously as I would drive at that hour in the city of Johannesburg. He however thought it ridiculous that I would not stick to the law of the traffic light.
Finally, there is the matter of clearing your walkway from snow. It is a law that you shuffle your walkway when the need arises or you could be sued if someone injures themselves in front of your door. With or without the law, I am told that it is just the nice thing to do. It certainly was pleasant being part of this ritual as both bikers and pedestrians would pass us and stop for a chat. This supports an integrated community once again.
My awareness is certainly heightened regarding values and mode of transportation. Taking the bus is not just taking the bus, it supports the movement to a sustainable community. With South Africans being social creatures it is after all a dialogue platform that is used, unlike my experience living in London where it is all stiff-upper-lip ‘I’m creating personal space by listening to my iPod’.
Want to spend a day out in Joburg studying our transport routes? Drop me a message.