Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

The Importance of Transportation

I am a big believer in the importance of the transportation system.

I focused on transportation engineering in my undergrad degree because I think improving this sector is one of the easiest ways to address our carbon footprint.  In BC, the transportation industry accounts for approximately one third of BC’s GHG emissions.  That’s huge!  But these inefficiencies offer significant opportunities for innovation and progress.

Living in South Africa, I am beginning to see the social importance of transportation.  Johannesburg is car city.  It consists of various suburbs and townships sprawled over a large distance.  These different residential areas are then connected by 3+ lane freeways.

It is impossible to get anywhere in this city without a car.

Public transportation does exist.  The most common form is the taxi (which is different from “cab”).  Taxi minibuses drive along fixed routes and pick people up on the side of the road, making up whatever traffic rules they see fit.  Unfortunately, taxis do not have a good reputation for safety (traffic collisions, mugging, kidnapping, etc.  Ok kidnapping is an exaggeration).

There is also a state-of-the-art train that was built for the 2010 World Cup.  I took it from the airport into the city when I first arrived and it’s pretty cool!  (Spoken like a true engineer.)

Along with the train, the city created some municipal bus routes.  These vehicles are like the blue buses we have in Vancouver, but nicer and newer.

So it’s possible to get to work and back if you plan where you live accordingly.  But it’s really hard to have a social life.  The taxis stop running after dark – not that you want to be standing on the side of the road in Johannesburg at night anyway.  The buses only go along a few major routes.  There are cabs like the ones we have in BC, but you have to phone the company and who knows how long it will take.

It’s frustrating, to say the least.

Even though my hosts have been extraordinarily helpful and generous with their offers to drive me places, I still feel stuck at home.  It’s terrible feeling trapped!  I want to go swimming at the pool in the neighbouring suburb.  Nope.  Check out the Brazilian jujitsu dojo 11 km away?  Buy groceries?  Everything becomes exponentially more difficult.  (Current diet strategy: no food in the house.)

It amazes me how much transportation – or lack of – is affecting my lifestyle.

This transportation system reinforces a polarized class system of the rich and the poor, the accepted and the marginalized.  Imagine being told you can’t buy a vehicle because of your ethnicity… one more form of disempowerment.

We’re incredibly lucky in Vancouver.  We have an adequate public transit system that helps equalize income differentials.  We have bike lanes.  It’s safe enough to walk – plus it’s so pretty that you want to walk!  It’s easy to hail to cab.

How am I supposed to go out drinking in this city?  Forced sobriety – the worst!

On a more positive note, there’s a park near the house I’m that temporarily staying that I can run in, so at least I’m exercising and seeing nature.  But imagine being stuck in the inner city with no recreational facilities.

Conclusion: an effective transportation system is worth so much more than the infrastructure costs.


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