As with so much else, the ways in which people get around Johannesburg depend largely on their economic status. The majority of the city’s better-off citizens make use of private cars while public transport is mostly used by the city’s working class residents. Helped along by the introduction of a controversial e-tolling system in 2013, however, more commuters are making use of the Gautrain, which runs between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Over the next decade, the city also intends to spend billions on improving, integrating and expanding its public transport network in an attempt to reduce traffic congestion.
Driving in Johannesburg
Owning a car in Johannesburg is a necessity for anyone who wants complete freedom of movement. Cars in South Africa drive on the left-hand side of the road, which means that the driver’s seat is on the right-hand side of the car. They are more often than not manual transmission. Additionally, expats wanting to register a car in Johannesburg should do so with patience – lines at traffic departments are often long and it isn’t unheard of to have to go back several times because of the city’s notorious bureaucracy.
Security is a priority for the city’s drivers since vehicle break-ins, hijackings and smash-and-grabs are known to occur. Expats should at least invest in an alarm with anti-hijacking features and make sure that their doors are locked, that their windows stay rolled up and that their valuables are kept out of sight. At the same time, residents should exercise caution and be aware of their surroundings. Many locals and expats avoid driving high-risk areas in the inner city and certain townships, especially at night. There are, however, safe areas to travel in and many people never have to deal with serious crime, but it’s always better to be cautious.
Expats planning to drive should note that Johannesburg drivers often drive fast and recklessly, with minibus taxis generally being the worst offenders in this respect. For this reason, it's vital to stay aware and ready to react at all times, especially when driving on the highway.
Public transport in Johannesburg
Trains in Johannesburg are operated by Metrorail, the state’s passenger rail service. The network is fairly extensive and connects the city to other parts of the country. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reach some of the areas expats are likely to live in such as Sandton, Midrand and Randburg.
Expats interested in using Metrorail should be advised that pickpocketing is fairly common, especially during peak periods, and valuables shouldn’t be openly displayed. While Metrorail trains occasionally run late and are vulnerable to strikes in the transport sector, they are an affordable and easily accessible way of getting around the Greater Johannesburg area.
Sandton, to the north of the city centre, does have access to an alternative means of rail transport. Initially intended to be built in time for the football world cup, the Gautrain project was completed in June 2012. Running for around 50 miles (80km), it forms a mass rapid transit railway system that connects Johannesburg, Sandton, the OR Tambo International Airport, Midrand, Centurion and Pretoria. Regular passengers can purchase a Gautrain Gold Card for a nominal fee to access parking, shuttle bus and train services.
The Rea Vaya Rapid Bus Transit network opened its first route in 2009 and has been expanding in phases since then. The system currently runs through areas in and around the city, and also runs a line between Johannesburg and Soweto. While a number of strikes have halted services in the past, it is arguably still the safest and most efficient mode of public transport in Johannesburg.
The Johannesburg Metrobus, on the other hand, consists of over 300 routes that service commuters across the Greater Johannesburg area, fanning out in all directions from the city centre. The system transports around 90,000 commuters a day, with a major interchange at Gandhi Square in the city centre and at various points throughout the region. Buses on major routes tend to be safe during the day, generally run on time and are easily accessible.
Minibus taxis are the most common form of public transport in Johannesburg and follow an informal route system, picking up passengers at various terminals and the side of the road. Passengers flag them down using a variety of hand signals which indicate their desired destination and the taxi either stops or drives past depending on whether or not their destination is on its route.
Minibus taxis in Johannesburg tend to be loud, overcrowded and are notorious for disregarding road rules. They are, however, the cheapest form of transport serving the country’s working class majority. Expats are unlikely to take one, although if they choose to, locals are normally willing to help with getting into the right one.
Metered taxis are also available throughout the city, although the most reliable way of getting a reputable taxi in good condition is phoning one of several cab companies in the city. Passengers should ensure that the driver switches his meter on, or that a fare is negotiated before embarking. Tips aren’t expected but are always appreciated.
Many Joburg locals and expats use Uber to get around town, for its competitive prices and reliability. Expats just need to download the app on their phone, although expats should nevertheless be careful about walking around with their phone out, especially at night.
Cycling in Johannesburg
Although the City of Johannesburg has been introducing cycling infrastructure such as bicycle lanes, cycling has not yet taken off as a popular form of transport in the city. Furthermore, the city's minibus taxis can make cycling a dangerous way to travel as they are prone to attempt to speed past traffic jams using any available space on the road – including cycle lanes.
Walking in Johannesburg
Given its size, it is unlikely that expats will walk to work in Johannesburg. Walking alone in downtown Johannesburg isn’t recommended, especially at night. The northern suburbs most expats stay in are, however, safe for the most part. Expats that want to experience the city on foot can take one of many guided tours around the city and through Soweto. As is the case when driving, expats should keep their valuables out of sight.