One thing South Africa doesn’t do particularly well is public transport.
If you’re an expat soon moving to South Africa, you might have come to this blog by way of Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa. There is a reason that article is so popular. Without a car, you’re pretty much lost in Johannesburg, otherwise a world class city in many ways.
Granted, this has changed some with the arrival of Uber. It’s like South Africa was the perfect match for it, with families experiencing a new kind of freedom as their teenagers can now come and go as they please without their parents having to worry about their safety.
Yet in a way Uber just proves the point: A lack of public transport plagues Johannesburg.
You might be forgiven to think, well, what do you expect, this is Africa. It can’t be as efficient as the Western World. If you live in Europe, you may be right. But if you’re American, not so fast, my friend. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate my point:
It’s a cold Sunday morning a week before Christmas. What I would most love to do on a morning such as this is lounge in front of a crackling fire and read the New York Times, beginning to end.
What Jabulani, a high school senior just out of school for the Christmas holidays, wants to do this Sunday morning is visit his girlfriend in Chattanooga, a little under two hours from here. Since his siblings are still in school writing exams and will need the car, he was faced with the option of either staying home or taking the bus for the first time. He opted for the Megabus, departing Nashville at 10:10, corner of Charlotte and 5th Ave.
No problem, I say, let’s take you there. I should be back by 10:30 to have my tea and paper.
Except the Megabus does not run like the trains in Europe. In fact, I’ll take the Gautrain in Sandton any day over this sorry excuse for a bus line, both in terms of punctuality and comfort level.
The day already starts badly when we can’t find the darn bus stop. Google does not seem to treat bus stops with the same kind of attention as it does actual buildings. Which is no surprise, given the dearth of bus stops in the United States.
We finally find it, just in the nick of time, and Jabulani shoulders his bag, waves good-bye, and disappears into the assembled Chattanooga-bound crowd. I linger. In typical American mom mode, I stay put. I realize how ridiculous that is, when in Germany my son would have been taking buses since the age of ten, going to all sorts of places amongst all sorts of strange people without any adult supervision. But here, in America, it is perfectly normal that an 18-year old has never traveled by bus in his entire life.
Megabus stops in the U.S. are not unlike minibus stops in South Africa. You show up and hope for the best!
It’s a good thing I stayed around, because the bus is nowhere to be seen. After about 30 minutes Jabulani appears back at my car, wanting to escape the deep-freeze outside. Simultaneously, the crowd begins to thin. Do they know something we don’t? Where is the bus? Jabulani calls Megabus. Gets hung up on. Calls again. Is told 10-15 more minutes. After 20 minutes, he calls another time, finding out that the bus is actually delayed until 11:40. What now? Ranting and raving won’t help, so we drive off to find some breakfast.
Nashville is deserted this bitter Sunday morning, but if you think that would make parking any easier, you’re mistaken. We pull into a surface lot, walk up to the machine for a ticket, and learn that it’s $18 for a minimum of two hours. Seeing a the entire bus ticket is only $16, which was the main attraction of the Megabus as an alternative to taking the car, we politely decline and drive off again.
I remember the public library. It has parking. It’s not far from where we are, and indeed offers parking in a nice garage for $1.50 the first 30 minutes. I have never understood how this huge gap can exist in Nashville’s parking scene without market forces somehow leveling this gap, but am quite happy it exists on this increasingly annoying Sunday morning.
The Starbucks we spill into minutes later is tiny. It has exactly seven seats, five of which are occupied. How lucky. Except once we settle into the two remaining seats with our steaming cups, the man next to us starts speaking in a loud voice. Looking like a homeless person, but one who owns a laptop that he is at this moment hunched over, with headphones on, he begins to… preach a sermon! Or something like that, it’s too strange to repeat. He sounds a little like one of those guys walking the streets of New York City with a big sign yelling “the end of the world is near!” The weirdest part about it is that the other patrons seem oblivious. Like only we can hear him, and no one else.
We gulp down our drinks and polish off our sandwiches, trying not to ogle the other, equally colorful occupants of the coffee shop too much while our preacher’s sing-song baritone booms in the background, and then we figure it’s time to get back to the bus.
Hallelujah, this time it is here. We are early, it’s only 11:30, but from about three stoplights away we can see that the line is getting shorter as people are boarding. What the hell, it might actually leave without Jabulani if these lights don’t start turning green anytime soon!
Just in the nick of time he makes it. I’m about to text home that we have had success and that he is boarding, when I see him approach again in confusion. It’s the Atlanta bus, he tells me, defeated, while I’m busy arguing with a cop who has appeared out of nowhere and takes issue with my illegally stopped car.
“Are you crazy?” I say (not to the cop, but to Jabulani, after I’ve pulled into another illegal spot farther away from the cop.) “You better get back on before it leaves. Last time I checked, Chattanooga was on the way to Atlanta.” Had I not been there, the hovering mother to educate her public transport uninitiated child on the intricacies of North American geography, he would be standing there still. The good news is, he didn’t get mugged or kidnapped that day. As menacing as that bus stop crowd had looked to one who’d never taken a bus in their life, they seemed to mostly mind their own business as soon as they’d found their seats, eyes on phone displays and earbuds firmly plugged into their ear canals.
It was 12:30 pm before I was back at home. Only slightly earlier than if I had just driven straight to Chattanooga and back. I might have missed the Sunday paper, but I came home with something better: A good story to tell.
Welcome to public transport in America.
So…. My point is, before you diss South Africa about the lack of buses to take you places, ask yourself when you’ve last ridden a bus in your home country, and whether it left on time.
If you call the United States of America your home, the answers might not be very flattering.