Getting around Cape Town is relatively easy, at least in terms of navigation. The city centre is compact, and large natural landmarks make for easy orientation. Additionally, the surrounding suburbs are a short distance from the central business district.
That said, a car is borderline essential because the options for public transport are limited. Expats will need to be prepared to spend a fair amount of time on the road – numerous surveys name Cape Town as South Africa's most congested city.
There are no subways, and metered taxis are expensive. Trains can be unsafe and unreliable and, of the two bus services operating in the city, only one of them approaches international standards and has limited coverage. Cape Town can be conquered on foot during the day, but there are trouble spots, and walking at night is not a good idea in many areas.
Driving in Cape Town
Expats will probably need to buy a car to get around in Cape Town. Both pre-owned and new vehicles are available from dealerships, and purchasing from individual private sellers is also a popular option.
Once they're permanent residents, expats have one year to convert their licence to a South African one. In the meantime, they can legally drive in South Africa using their own country’s driving licence as long as it has a photograph of the driver, is valid and is in English. If their driving licence doesn't meet these requirements, an International Driving Permit can be used instead.
Generally speaking, traffic in Cape Town is at its worst in the mornings and evenings to and from the city centre. Parking can also be a problem and is often expensive, especially in the city centre. Most spots require some parallel manoeuvring.
South African drivers are known for being reckless, and the lawless practices of minibus taxis don't make the roads any safer. Expats should be sure to drive defensively and be aware of their surroundings at all times.
Public transport in Cape Town
An ongoing long-term project, the MyCiTi Integrated Rapid Transit (IRT) system began in 2010 and is constantly being expanded. With dedicated lanes in several areas, the MyCiTi blue buses are considered a cost-effective, efficient and safe way to get around Cape Town and between the city and the airport.
The network has grown to comprehensively cover the inner city and the Atlantic Seaboard from Sea Point to Hout Bay. It also extends northwards, cutting through Milnerton, Table View and Century City before making its way along the West Coast to the quaint town of Mamre. It also extends east to the townships of Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain.
Unfortunately, the service fails to cover the Southern Suburbs which includes a number of areas popular with expats such as Bishopscourt, Constantia, Claremont and Rondebosch.
Golden Arrow buses
With a history stretching all the way back to 1861, the green, orange and white buses of the Golden Arrow Bus Service are as much a part of the local scenery as Table Mountain. Unfortunately, many of its vehicles are old and could be better maintained. The buses are mostly safe but can be inefficient and crowded. However, for those living in the city's Southern Suburbs with no personal vehicle access, this may be an option worth considering.
Train travel in Cape Town is run by Metrorail, the state-owned commuter rail service. Service can be limited in some areas and can be unpleasant and unsafe, especially outside of the first-class carriages. Travel during peak hours is characterised by large crowds, little concern for safety regulations and frequent strikes. Timing can be erratic, with trains arriving perfectly on time one day and being hopelessly delayed the next.
Muggings and petty thefts are common on some routes, and expats should take care to keep an eye on their personal belongings.
While not always ideal for everyday travel, the train from the city centre to Fish Hoek and Muizenberg can be a charming way to spend a weekend afternoon.
The most ubiquitous form of public transport in Cape Town is the minibus taxi, which, although cheap and efficient, is not the safest transport option. Drivers are often reckless, conditions are cramped, and vehicles are usually in poor condition. In and around the city centre where distances are short and fares low, these can be a useful mode of transit, but they are not recommended for any travel that requires nighttime or highway driving.
Taxis in Cape Town
Metered taxis abound in Cape Town, but expats should take make sure to use a reliable company. Fares are usually printed on the cabs' doors.
Passengers should make sure that the driver has turned on the meter, or that they have negotiated a fare beforehand. Metered taxis that look to be in poor condition, or taxis that don't have a meter, should be avoided. Tipping is appreciated, but not expected.
Ride-hailing services such as Uber are available in Cape Town and are a good way to get around the city, especially at night. With affordable rates and reliable pickups, Uber is a useful app to have on one's phone.
Cycling in Cape Town
Although a growing number of environmentally conscious Capetonians are turning to their bicycles to get around, expats will find that the infrastructure in Cape Town is a far cry from some of Europe's cycle-friendly cities. Still, there are several cycling paths in the city centre and parts of the Southern Suburbs as part of efforts to decrease congestion. Of particular note is the MyCiTi cycle route, which is designed to connect with public transport routes.
The city's cycling infrastructure still has room for improvement, though. For instance, not all the cycle lanes and routes are connected. If traversing an area without cycle lanes, cyclists must ensure that they are easily visible to motorists and should be aware of surrounding vehicles at all times.
►For info on purchasing a vehicle, see Buying a Car in South Africa
►Transport and Driving in South Africa gives an overview of options for travelling outside of Cape Town
"When I first got here, I tried to use public transport, but it wasn’t really very practical – train services are often cancelled, and minibus taxis drive erratically. Having a car in Cape Town really makes life much easier." Read more about Shantalie's experience of expat life in Cape Town.
"I have lived in Cape Town for two years without a car, so you can definitely survive without a car! I travel by trains, minibus taxis, MyCiti buses, walking and cycling. However, public transport in Cape Town is limited, and it can be difficult to reach suburbs outside of the city, especially in evening and weekends." Lisa shares an alternative view of Cape Town's public transport in her expat interview.
Are you an expat living in Cape Town?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Cape Town. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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