As with so much else in the city, the ways in which people get around Johannesburg depends 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. More commuters are now 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 also 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 in 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 Joburg 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, Rosebank and Randburg.
Expats interested in using Metrorail should be advised that pickpocketing is not uncommon, 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, 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 (80 km), it forms a mass rapid transit railway system that connects the Johannesburg CBD, Sandton, the OR Tambo International Airport, Midrand, Centurion and Pretoria. Regular passengers can purchase a Gautrain Card for a nominal fee to access parking, shuttle bus and train services.
The Rea Vaya Rapid Bus Transit (RBT) 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 one of the safest and most efficient modes of public transport in Joburg.
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. Due to outdated buses and the availability of more attractive options, ridership has been declining for several years. There are plans to revitalise the service.
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.
Taxis in Johannesburg
Metered taxis are available throughout the city and can be flagged down, 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 flat fare is negotiated before embarking. Tips aren’t expected but are always appreciated.
Many Joburg locals and expats use ride-hailing services such as Uber to get around town because of their competitive prices and reliability.
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. The city's minibus taxis also 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, which most expats stay in, are safe for the most part. As is the case when driving, expats should keep their valuables out of sight.
►See Transport and Driving in South Africa for information on getting around nationally
"Having a car is pretty much essential here. That being said, Uber works great in South Africa, and it’s generally your best and safest option if you’re not driving." Read Canadian expat Phil's interview about life in South Africa.
"You would struggle without a car here. We have two, one each. It isn’t that safe to walk, especially at night and the public transport system is not recommended. People do use Uber though and I have heard good things about it." Clara shares her experiences in her expat interview about living in South Africa.
Are you an expat living in Johannesburg?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Johannesburg. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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