Inner City Musings: Taxi to the City

I love public transport. It’s mostly because it’s based around people. People are powerful beyond their own belief and any situation that aims to bring as many people as possible together in a natural setting, benefits from the collective power of all these people. I’ve been to quite a few cities and towns around the world and it’s always easy to learn the public transport. Granted London has a plethora of iPhone Apps and the tube map is imprinted into everyone’s psyche after a day but even in cities where public transport is not as organised, it’s just so simple to learn the lay of the land. Gosh, I couldn’t find a single app detailing Ho Chi Minh City but I got around with such ease. I wonder if it’s all in our (my) head. When you have a car or have someone to come pick you up, you become lazy. You don’t see the need to learn the city. Help is a phone call away. However, being alone and lost under a double overpass in not-so downtown Bangkok does heighten your survival instincts as you clamour to find your way to a place that is known. I guess this is why I have been so scared of the taxis in Jozi.

I heard a rather ridiculous figure earlier today. Apparently upwards of 70% of the residents of Jozi use public transport. I think this figure is too low.  Yet I am pretty sure most of my readers have not ventured onto these apparent chariots of destruction. But there is no need to use them. We spend around R8000 per month on a vehicle. Our employers know this and structure our salaries such that this is possible. In the last few months, motor manufacturing plants have opened up in South Africa. Everything that is made for our convenience is geared towards the vehicle. Whole city blocks are dedicated to parking spots. Pay parking machines accept credit cards. Every new complex of townhouses is built around the amount of parking spots for the residents and every one of their guests. Having a quadruple garage for a four member household is normal. Even Maboneng is instituting a dedicated area for parking.

The car is our idol. We worship it with fervour. We even sacrifice hundreds of able bodied people every month to appease it. Yet it’s never appeased. But our idol worship continues unabated.

So let’s damn the man and use what the common man uses. How hard can it be?

Actually it’s pretty damn easy but we will get to that.

So the Johannesburg Book and Movie Meetup Group (which is an awesome group if you want to do stuff) decided that we should try taking a taxi. Millions do it so why can’t a bunch of whiteys and a token Indian do the same?

Our aim was to catch a taxi from Craighall Park to Bree Street in the CBD, have a cup of coffee, talk about lanterns (not really) and then come back home. Easy? Well yes, it was easy but we’re still getting to that.

So we met up at our designated location which featured safe parking for the object of our worship – our motor vehicles – and took a walk to Jan Smuts Avenue. It was a Saturday morning so it wouldn’t have the hustle and bustle of midweek. What this would mean for the availability of taxis didn’t really cross our mind as there were about five in view once we got to Jan Smuts. Yes, these were all going in the opposite direction but this still was a good sign.

We crossed the road and stood at the rank.

We probably looked comical. I felt comical because I actually had no idea what I would do if a taxi did come by. I might jump in and get taken to Alberton or worse, Germiston. These things happen you know and going to Germiston is known to scar people for life. I got a scar from Germiston (although that’s probably because I fell and cut myself. The scar is gone. But I am still claiming it.)

The kind guards of the shopping centre next to the rank happily showed us how to catch a taxi. They asked us if we want to go to MTN or Bree. We had no clue what MTN was so we said Bree. This brings us to the famed hand signals that almost form this separation between the taxi users and the vehicle users. They’re not that difficult. The simple reason for their existence is that if you’re 200m in front of the taxi, it’s an easy way to get the driver’s attention. The signals, thus, are quite simple and sometimes intuitive. The City of Joburg has actually made a handy guide to taxi signs which you can print out and memorise. However, these do change and oddly, these take topical events into consideration. The golden rule is to ask those around you what the sign is for your destination. Easy. The general rule is that if you need to go to town, you’re going to put up you hand with your pointing finger facing to outwards and skywards. Try not to look like an umpire when doing it. Keep your hand around head height.

Equipped with this new knowledge, we wait.

Ok I lie, we don’t wait. Or at least, we don’t wait that long. In less than five minutes, we’re in luck. Up goes our single finger, the taxi driver stops and we jump in. The taxi is empty. We have successfully got into a private taxi to town for a bargain bin price. Score.

 Jozi Taxi

I try to make small talk with the driver and ask him how to get to Hillbrow. I put up a hand sign with all five fingers. He almost gets a heart attack as he thinks we want to go to Hillbrow but he instead is on his way to Bree. I notice this and quickly tell him, “No no no no no, we’re going to Bree.” He calms down. I sit back and play with my fingers.

The taxi itself was the not one of those fancy, shmancy Quantum’s or Mercedes. It was the skoro-skoro, Toyota HiAce. Looking around, it was rather rundown. On either side of us were holes in the body work which allowed you to see the road. Inviting I tell you. Our seat also kinda needed to be propped up. I didn’t notice this need as the person behind me propped it up for the entire ride.

Inside a taxi

Oddly, I didn’t feel unsafe riding in this apparent death trap. But that’s the nature of low speed, inner city transport. Overseas, the public transport vehicles are in the same shape as this taxi. I’ve seen it. Sometimes they are worse off. The problem with the South African context is two-fold. The first is that our cities are big. They cover huge areas which are not closely packed in. This means that to get from one urban centre to another, you have to go at speeds in excess of 60kph. Knock someone at that speed and you’re dead. It really is that simple. The other problem is the conflicting driving styles that exist in SA. Inner city taxi’s drive differently to long distance taxis who driving differently from Jozi drivers who drive differently from Durban drivers who drive differently from Free State drivers who drive differently from drivers under the influence of a melody of substances who drive differently from paranoid people who do not want to get stopped by cops. All of these converge on the roads of Jozi. It doesn’t make a pretty sight. Think about it – when was the last time you drove all day and did not see an accident? It’s become so commonplace that you probably can’t recall the last accident you saw. Both these add up to make the South African driving experience rather unique and very scary. It means every vehicle on our road must have a high NCAP rating otherwise we will die in traffic. And although I did feel safe in this taxi, I should count myself lucky that nothing happened on our way to town.

This does highlight why taxi recapitalisation is important and that the new taxis on our roads are as safe as can be. We really shouldn’t accept taxis that aren’t in tip top condition. But again, this is such a ridiculously complex issue. There are so many variables and so many arguments. So let’s leave it there…

The ride was quite fantastic. The drive down Jan Smuts is quite beautiful especially in autumn. The leaves wish away as we make them fly as we drive over them. As we drive, a few pass by the window. The cool morning breeze, mist and frost give Jozi this fresh feeling. The Zulu talk radio coming out the speakers oddly adds to this ambience. We get into town from the west and it’s oddly rather empty. We get off at the bottom of Bree. The journey cost us R10 each.

City Hall Road Jozi CBD

 The inner city is quiet on a Saturday morning. But this is just because we’re in the banking and mining district. These white collar jobs are not weekend friendly. Our walk takes us past the infamous Luthuli House – home of the ANC. This is the nerve centre of South Africa. Every major decision in this country is made or passed here. There is a Casspir that is permanently parked outside here. With good reason. You can figure out the symbolism with this image. I don’t take pictures. I’m not going to risk it.

About half a block into town is one of Jozi’s most beautiful buildings – The Johannesburg City Library. Recently renovated, this building is just stunning to look at and to experience. Libraries are always so inviting and so special. The concept of sharing all this knowledge infiltrates and fills the body with this unique feeling. I can’t truly describe it but it is a feeling I only get when inside a library. Used or new books stores never ever give me this feeling. We peruse the aisles for quite a while. Libraries always seem to be underfunded which allows the shelves to be filled with relics of yesteryear that educate you in ways no modern book can. Sometimes it’s a bad thing but from what I saw on these shelves, this may be a good thing. You need to visit this building. Find some time and just go. You won’t be disappointed.

Johannesburg City Library

The cool, crisp morning air hits us as we step out the library. The lazy sun lures us towards it as Jozi town stands in front of us. The legislature building stands across the park and to its right is the Guildhall Bar which is one of the oldest in SA. They have great pizza specials. You should try it out while sitting on the balcony. Pizza whilst watching the world go by – that sounds fun. About a block or so away, you hit the mining district and Cramers.

Cramers Coffee

Cramers Coffee claim to have the best coffee in the world. It’s emblazoned everywhere. Foursquare seems to agree. The hazelnut latte that I had confirms this. Holy mother of that squirrel I saw run underneath the parked BMW today, I felt like I was sipping the sweetest, purest nectar ever made. Bloody hell it was good. The hazelnut essence and the coffee were perfectly balanced and created this symphony in your mouth. The cup was way, way too small.

The mining district has the intense beauty about it. It’s the inner city and during the week, it buzzes with activity as the world’s biggest decisions are made daily in these halls. But why is it just these few that get to make these decisions here. Why can’t every business and industry adorn these streets? As I walked the streets, I realised it’s not the infrastructure but our mind sets as South Africans that holds us back. We’re not going to go back into the inner city because we can go the other way. Since the Great Trek, we’ve looked for answers beyond our current boundaries. No, this has been happening before the Great Trek all the way back to when the Cradle of Humankind was the birthplace of humans and some Australopithecus thought: “Hmm, let’s take a walk this way,” and ended up all over the world.  We’re a nation that pushes these boundaries. A nation that goes boldly out there even though it’s crazy to do so. Our people transplant hearts because they feel like it.  We take part in the Olympics without functioning hearing or even legs. We build electric sports cars when oil still reigns supreme. We’re over achievers and maybe that’s why our cities lay bare. There is more out there and we aim for it. In the words of Nelson Mandela: “South Africans are a daring people who do not shy away from a challenge, no matter how formidable.”

That’s probably the oddest validation of urban sprawl ever.

Mine Equipment in the Jozi CBD

We continue on down the mining district and realise we need to maybe get back to home. This part of the mission wasn’t that well thought out. Getting to town from anywhere via taxi is pretty trivial. Everyone goes to town after all. Getting back would require a specialist taxi that’s dedicated to our route. But where the hell do you find it? We ponder this for a moment and then do the one thing that you should ALWAYS do when you’re lost.

Ask someone.

And that my friends, is the key to utilising public transport. All you need to do is ask. South African’s are the friendliest people you will meet. Most people are extremely happy to give you directions and offer help. Some even go out of their way and put themselves at an inconvenience just to ensure you are safe and sound. This is why we are generally such a beautiful people. Sadly many people now help for a small fee but alas, that is capitalism for you…

Taxis in front of the old JSE

So we ask a taxi driver.  He instructs us to jump into his Mercedes bus as he takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Jozi CBD. The mining district is quiet but as he takes us closer to the fashion district, the real Saturday morning CBD becomes apparent. People everywhere. Taxis everywhere. Vendors on the sides of the road. Music blaring from every corner. The oddest traffic jams you’ve seen which are a strange melee between cars, taxis and people with robots that are promptly ignored. It’s beautiful and was worth the R10 he charged us even though he tried to make it seem that he was giving us a discount for taking us just a few blocks. Well, it was MUCH shorter than the trip from Randburg to Bree. Although he did have some ridiculously good jazz music playing on his sound system.

Enter MTN!

Named after one of the higher priced yet highly patroned cellular service providers, this is actually the Noord Taxi Rank which has been colourfully taken over by MTN branding. Which is why it’s now called MTN. Makes sense. It’s the biggest taxi rank in South Africa and you can even go to Lagos from here (not really.) We walk in and as luck may have it, the taxi’s to Randburg are right in front of us. It does mean we can’t explore the rank but that’s okay. The ushers are really great and they do actually make the whole taxi catching thingy much easier.

MTN Noord Taxi Rank

We stand in the queue to get in. Okay no, we did not. But please remember that there is a queue that you must join. The next time you’re driving through the suburbs at rush hour, you may see a queue on a random corner. Ja, that’s a taxi queue. Try not to cut line.

This taxi is a bit more packed than the last which is great. It takes us about 15 minutes to get to Craighall Park and, again, it costs us R10 each.  We get back alive and intact. That wasn’t so bad. Oddly, it was a very different and scarier experience than catching taxis in Durban but all in all, it was great.  It also was ridiculously easy. All you need to do is ask and you will get to exactly where you need to go. It really is that EASY!

Taxi in front of Nelson Mandela Bridge

2 thoughts on “Inner City Musings: Taxi to the City

  1. Love this! Some people were horrified when i said i took the taxi to work and back every day but it really was fun. If you ask, they are very helpful.

    1. It is a lot of fun hey. I love how friendly people are though. Everyone on that ride back was cool. Didn’t chat much but you could feel the friendliness within. I liked it.

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