Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the tag “Transportation”

Dream a little dream

Last weekend at the EWB fall planning retreat, we talked about interests, passions, and dreams.  For a short introduction on our dreams, I was paired with Miles who is one of the Kumvana delegates.  He told me that his life dream is to make Ghana agriculturally self-sufficient.  He wants to end his country’s reliance on maize, cassava, and soy imports.  Moreover, he believes that this can accomplished by small famers: improving agriculture can vast amounts of people get themselves out of poverty.  Somehow, Miles wove into his descriptions how much he loves children and that increasing women’s rights will also help Ghana become a stronger country.

He is an amazing human being.  You can donate to his Kumvana placement here.

In comparison, my life goal of “I want to stop the BC Ferries 10 minute cut-off rule to Bowen from the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal” seemed a little uninspired and boring.

So I forced myself to think big.  What do I really want to do with my life?  Besides get a dog.

I want to give people freedom.

In transportation theory, transportation is seen as a means to give people mobility and accessibility.  It’s important to be mobile so that you can move from place to place.  More importantly, it’s important to be able to access different services.

For example, say you live on a bus route that takes you to the airport.  You’re relatively mobile.  But what if you never fly?  What if there are no services along that bus route that you need?  Stuff like employment, health services, recreation, groceries.  In that case, you don’t have adequate accessibility.

In much of the developing world, transportation provides mobility without accessibility.  It’s easy to get to some places, but they’re not always the places you want to go.

Moreover, cultural considerations, safety concerns, and environmental issues are all related to personal transportation.

Personally, I value my freedom.  I like my freedom so much that it makes dating difficult: I hate feeling caged in and will break up as soon as it feels like my opportunities are starting to shrink (which usually happens around the second date.  Yep, I can be crazy).  In Tamale, it’s been emotionally difficult to have a curfew imposed by my host-family.

My dream is for people to feel safe and secure in their freedom.  I don’t want people to be afraid of traveling at night, for women to fear certain routes, or children to get sick because the hospital is too far away.

No one should die because roads curve dangerously or traffic signals are timed incorrectly.  A little bit of data collection, design and citizen engagement can go a long way in improving transportation systems – especially in developing countries.

As my transportation expert friend Patrick says, transportation alone can’t solve society’s problems.  But the system can either exacerbate or alleviate them.

It’s time to design better systems.



Unlike other disciplines, civil engineering has arguably not changed significantly for the past couple hundred years.  Granted, we’ve had a few advancements such as computer-aided design or composite materials, but the basic principles have largely remained the same.  Furthermore, civil engineering tends to be conservative: we build infrastructure to be safe, not cutting-edge.  If a certain approach works, why change it?

This sort of thinking means that industry advancements tend to be slow.  Even though labs all over the world keep proving that fibre-reinforced concrete display better strength under tension, most engineers and construction companies still use regular concrete and rebar.

However, a “good” engineer, in my opinion, questions the status quo.  It’s easy to design according to code – it’s safe and established – but that doesn’t advance the industry.  Moreover, your designs may work fine but they could probably be better (safer, cheaper, more user-friendly, etc.).

For example, we use the same criteria to judge roads all over the world – paved – for which there is one established method of construction: you place a base layer of gravel, run over it a few times with a compactor, and then lay your asphalt on top

That works fine in certain environments, but not all.  More and more we’re discovering that the conventional paving method has more negative side effects than we initially realized, such as pollution run-off and massive stormwater surges.  As a result, people have experimented with alternative methods such as permeable pavement or white-topping.

In Canada, for instance, engineers have found that daily freeze-thaw periods experienced in some cities during the winter cause rapid pavement degradation.  As a result, Canadian engineers have developed alternative methods to conventional techniques –such as using different subgrade materials that aren’t frost-susceptible or providing capillary breaks so that less water sits in the soil directly below the pavement.

In South Africa, on the other hand, the environment is completely different.  Instead of dealing with rapid freeze-thaw cycles, we have thunderstorms and flashfloods during the summer months.  If you’re from Vancouver, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “A little rain?  Big deal.  Our roads handle rain just fine.”

But this isn’t just “a little rain.”  I was caught in a hail storm a couple months ago and I was completely soaked (right through my bra and underwear) within 2 minutes.  I was halfway through my 10 minute walk from the minibus taxi route to my house and I had to take cover with a security man in his tiny roadside security hut until the rain diminished 10 minutes later.  By then, the roads were mini rivers.

Think of the most rain you’ve ever seen pouring down the road because a ditch gets blocked during a storm in Vancouver.  That happens once a week in Jozi from November to April.

As a result, the subgrade gravel beneath the pavement quickly gets washed out and there are huge potholes all over the city.  There’s nothing better than driving home at night – especially through a sketchy area and the streetlights aren’t working – and hitting a deep pothole!

The city can’t keep up with road maintenance, so often locals put traffic cones or tires over the larger holes.  Sometimes they get filled up with gravel, but that quickly washes away in the next rainstorm.  My favourite are the “Caution Potholes” signs that look like they’ve been there for years.

As a transportation engineer, driving through this city makes me crazy for a variety of reasons.  Mostly I want to coordinate the traffic lights.  Seriously, give me a team of 10 people to preform traffic counts during peak hours and in 2 years I’ll transform this city!

Maybe even more critical, however, is this problem with road washout.  There must be a better method!  I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since summer started in November.  At first I considered permeable pavement, but that won’t solve the gravel washout.  Green geogrid?  That works on driveways, but is it an option for city roads?

I’m not an expert on road materials, but I’d be willing to do the research and the testing.  Seriously.  Because, right now, the system is terribly inefficient.  But I’d rather someone else solve this problem.

C’mon, engineers!  You know you want to.

E-tolling judgment illustrates failure of media and citizens

Being a citizen can be hard work.

On the other hand, if you’re not willing to put in some effort then don’t complain when the government does whatever it wants.

(Some advice I need to take myself.)

But maybe the (mostly) middle class citizens, who ignored the original announcement as well as the physical evidence of gantries being built all across the newly upgraded freeways of Gauteng, cannot escape responsibility. Surely, if citizens want the government to listen to them, then they have to remain vigilant about government decisions affecting them and must be prepared to organise against such plans from an early stage?

Nothing to Worry About

Don’t worry – my friend is still alive!  Despite my fretting.

Moreover, his experiences on the minibus taxis validated my frequent declarations: they’re awesome.

Yesterday when he caught the bus in the morning, all he had were R200 bills.  Considering the ride is usually R10, that’s a lot of cash to get back.  In the mornings, minibus taxis drivers rarely have the change for such a big bill.

So what happened?

A stranger paid his fare!

Yep.  Awesome.

On another transportation-related note, today he took the Rea Vaya (Joburg’s Bus Rapid Transit system) to Soweto from my office and said it was super easy.  I still haven’t taken the Rea Vaya, but plan on doing it before I leave.  Nice to know that it shouldn’t be a problem!


As a transportation engineer, I have to say that in my professional opinion… this is awesome!

Bowen Island, a little island close to Vancouver, is trying to encourage more hitchhiking.  Part of me thinks the best way to encourage is to do it yourself (that’s what I do when I visit), but I still like the idea of colour-coded signs.  That being said, I would never wear a bright blue lanyard.

To start, in no way do I want anything to think following is a criticism of LINK.

One complaint that I’ve heard directed towards Vancouver over and over again is how incredibly regulated it is.  Is art still cool when the City mandates it?  Vancouver requires every new large-scale construction project to dedicate a certain amount of money to public art.  I’m not sure about the numbers, but I think (NO ONE QUOTE ME ON THIS) that a recent multimillion dollar building built by a college institute had to dedicate over $30,000 to public art on their site.

And you know what?  The college couldn’t even choose the artist.  They had to pick from a selection of City of Van-approved art projects.

Listen, I love modern art.  I love abstract.  I often get into arguments with friends that what I like isn’t “real art,” it’s just paint splashed onto a canvas.  But even I think most of Vancouver’s public art is really ugly.  Consider, for example, one particular “sculpture” on the grass near the Sea Wall in Coal Harbour.  My mum and I used to run by it a couple times a week.  We originally thought the landscapers had left some bags of dirt lying around.  After a few weeks, though, they were still there.   Were they garbage?  But Coal Harbour is such an affluent area… it didn’t make sense that this eyesore would’ve been left for so long.

I finally ran across the grass to inspect the grass.  Yep.  You guessed it.  It was a “Vancouver special” (a term used to describe Van’s ugly box houses) art project entitled “Pillows.”

Van is a city in which people go to pubs to play board games.  Even I once played Jenga on a date in Gastown.  (It was awful.  He and I never saw each other again. Q.E.D.)  How incredibly pretentious is that?!

Don’t even get me started on Van’s music scene.

As a technocrat, the engineer in me loves regulations and rules.  At the same time, though, my inner hippy argues, “Sometimes you just gotta let things evolve, man… you gotta let things flow on their own.”

Compare Vancouver to Johannesburg.  Here, life spills out onto the streets.  The sidewalks of Hillbrow are covered with vendors, groups of young men, children, individuals passed out.  The public space is a social place.

Last weekend, some friends and I went to a rooftop party in the inner city in which music blasted past 10pm.  Can you imagine that happening in Van?

Because of Canada’s regulated society, when I read about initiatives like LINK, I think to myself, “Is this really going to work?  Can a government program actually change a community’s culture?”

Then again, LINK isn’t a government program; it’s a grassroots initiative with a lot of community energy behind it.

So let’s get on board!  Stick out your thumb or offer someone a ride!

Car Adventures

Sometimes I wish everything in this country could be a little bit less of an adventure.  On the other hand, I often make things more “exciting” than necessary by trying to save money.

Last Monday I rented a car.  I think the experience can be summed up the email I sent the car company 5 days later.


Hello Byron,
I would like to return my vehicle one week early on Monday February 4th and receive a full refund for the second week.  Although I did not have high expectations for a company named “Rent a Wreck,” I wanted a vehicle that I could reliably drive to and from work (6km each way) as well as within my neighbourhood in the evenings.  I have had three vehicles from you since last Monday and each has been a major inconvenience.
The first vehicle broke down on Tuesday, the day after I got it.  The gears became stickier and sticker throughout the day until they completely seized up in the afternoon in the middle of Gleneagles Rd.  When the car was off, I could get it into gear.  As soon as I turned it on again, however, I could not switch gears.  As a result of the delay I missed my appointment.
The second vehicle broke down yesterday (Thursday), two days after I got it.  All of sudden it began smoking under the hood.  Luckily I had almost arrived to my destination so I was able to pull into the parking lot.
The third vehicle, which I received yesterday, drives fine so far.  However, as I was driving yesterday the keys fell out of the ignition and it turned itself off.  I do not feel comfortable driving it on a busy road or the highway.  Furthermore, the back seat falls down.  I work in Hillbrow and keep my purse, etc., in the trunk while commuting.  I cannot drive a vehicle in which everyone can see my possessions.
To be honest, I feel like I should also receive a discount for the hassles I’ve had this week due to your unreliable vehicles.  The reason I rented a vehicle was to have dependable transportation, but I have not received that from your company.
If you have comments or questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at ### ### ####.


Some Positive Aspects

Without a doubt, commuting via minibus taxis is inconvenient.  In the mornings, I get off at Braamfontein Centre, which is a 15 minute walk from my office building.  In the afternoon, I have to walk to the Bree Taxi Rank; it’s a hot, busy, crime-ridden 30 minute walk from my office.

Besides the walk to Bree, though, I like taking the minibuses.  It’s great to start off my day with a brisk walk!  At 8am, the bright sun is warm on my skin and the sidewalks are relatively empty.

Furthermore, in the afternoons I usually walk with at least one other person from my office.  I’ve heard more gossip during this past week than in the last four months!  Our receptionist is especially chatty.  Occasionally she’s start a story then gasps, “Oh no, I have such a big mouth!”

“Don’t worry,” I soothe her.  “Who do I have to tell?”

Then she’ll continue with her latest juicy tidbit.

In addition, it’s interesting to see the culture differences between winter to summer.  When I first moved here and took minibus taxis, it was winter and most of the people were inside.  Now that’s it’s summer, however, there are more people hanging around outside.

 A couple days ago I stopped to watch a group of amazing dancers that had attracted a significant crowd.  I think they were doing “gumboot dancing”: a style that emerged among the mineworkers during apartheid.  Unable to talk to each other because of their white overseers, black miners established a language communicated through stomping their feet.  Over the years this evolved into “gumboot dancing” which includes not only boot stomping but acrobatics as well.


I never would have seen that on my usual drive!

Plus I just like to talk to people.  I like to listen to conversations and see strangers interact, even if I don’t understand the language.  I like how helpful people are to me.

My first morning taking a minibus to work, I hailed one down and said that I wanted to get to Hillbrow.  One commuter inside explained that I could get to Braamfontein and either walk or take another minibus from there.  When we got to Braamfontein Centre he ushered me off the bus then pointed out the direction to Hillbrow.  “It’s 10 minutes,” he said.  “Or you can take a [Metro] bus, but I don’t know how to catch those.”

“Thank you!”

There are more anomalies in my day now, and that makes it all the more exciting.  For example, yesterday another white person got in my taxi.  In a business suit.  Want to know the most amazing part?  From his accent I could tell he was Afrikaans!  The whole experience blew my mind.

Does it really matter that my commute is 40 minutes longer each way if I get to see a big Afrikaner squished in a minibus taxi?  Nope.  Totally worth it!

Some Negative Incidents

A couple days ago, three Canadians and I went for dinner.  Even though it was the beginning of the week, we began to brainstorm ideas of how to spend our weekend.  We decided that we wanted to check out Tanz Café in Fourways since it usually hosts local bands on Fridays.  Moreover, there’s a specific building that one of the interns wanted to see and take photos of.  The only problem is that Fourways is quite far north from our neighbourhood.

Should we drive there and take a partner taxi home?  That means that the taxi brings two people: the taxi driver and someone to drive your car home for you.

Or should we cab it both there and back?

“Why don’t we take the minibuses up there?”  I asked.  “You want to take photos so it’ll still be light outside.  We can leave right after work!  It’s only 10 rand each and really fast.”

The other three shook their head.  They had no interest in taking a minibus taxi.

“Don’t you want to experience how the majority of Joburg travels?  And it’s not that bad.  Honestly, I kind of enjoy taking them – it’s always an adventure and everyone is so helpful!”

The intern who’s been here a few months already and knows me pretty well answered for the group:

“B Dobs, of course you enjoy minibuses.  You love everything.  I’ve never heard you say something negative about anything.  C’mon… tell us something you don’t like.”

After the conversation, I started to think about this blog and how I portray Jozi.  I hope that all of you reading don’t think that my natural optimism is causes me to downplay the negative aspects of this city.

As a result, I’ve decided to write about some of the bad things that have happened:

Two weeks ago, there was an armed robbery a few blocks from my office in which one policeman was shot and killed and another was severely injured.

Three days ago, we heard two gunshots just as I was getting ready to walk to the store.  Because of the recent shootout, I decided to wait a bit before leaving.  Five minutes later we heard sirens go by.  Fifteen minutes later I left for my walk.  Life in Hillbrow goes on.

Last night a minibus taxi lost its breaks while it was flying down Claim Street (the road that worries me the most on my bi-weekly drive to the pool).  It hit a woman and flung her into one of MHA’s buildings.  She died on impact.  The taxi took off.  The driver probably didn’t have insurance.

Since I’m currently taking minibus taxis again, this incident has made me slightly more concerned.  What would I do if my taxi hit someone and fled?  What would the driver do about the commuters still inside?

Want some stories outside of Hillbrow?  In early December, my neighbour and his friend were mugged at gunpoint on 7th Street (the busy commercial street) of Melville at 11am.

Something less dramatic?  My bachelor suite hasn’t had hot water for over a week.

I can continue.  It’s easy to keep listing horror stories – especially robberies and muggings – but we hear about that enough in the news already.  Like most cities in the world, crime rates in Johannesburg have dropped significantly over the past 20 years.

Enough of this.  Tomorrow’s post will describe the best parts about taking minibus taxis again!

Taking Taxis Again

I thought I’d experienced the taxi buses of Johannesburg enough when I first moved here.  Lesson learned!  No need to endure that mode of travel ever again!


This week, I’m back to the taxi buses.  Probably next week too.  Maybe even indefinitely.


You guessed it.

My car broke.


I’m trying to remain positive about it.  No one was hurt!  It could have been a major accident, but I didn’t even get whiplash!  Yay!

The story:

Last week it was hot and sunny all week.  On Friday, however, the rain finally hit.  It poured.  By evening the rain had stopped but the weather remained gray and overcast.

It was 11:30pm Friday night and I was on my way to a friend’s house.  Unfortunately, he lives at the north end of Joburg and I live in the middle, so it takes approximately half an hour to get to his place when there’s no traffic.

I had just left my place and was about 2km from my house, curving left along the bend of the on-ramp to the highway.  My windows were down (my defrost is terrible), my music was loud, and I was enjoying the empty streets.

All of sudden my car started turning sharply to the left and continued spinning.  The front smashed into the curb, slowing the vehicle down.  It stopped with its back bumper along the curb, perpendicular to the road, 270° from its initial position.

As it was spinning, I couldn’t figure out what was happening.  Had I hit an oil slick?  But then I would’ve continued forward, instead of dipping to the left.  Had my tire popped?  But I hadn’t heard anything.

After it came to a complete stop, I got out and looked at the damage.  Not too bad, considering what had just happened.  The front was pretty banged up, but it was already banged up when I got the vehicle.

A car stopped and the couple inside asked if they could help.

“Uh… let me call my friend… I have no idea what happened… all of sudden it started spinning… no I’m not hurt… thanks for stopping….”

I was barely coherent as I tried to piece together what had just happened.

Less than 5 minutes after the accident, a tow truck arrived and offered his services.

I called my friend, a Joburg local.  The conversation was not very helpful.

“Hey.  I don’t think I’m going to make it to your place tonight.  My car just self-destructed on the on-ramp to the M1.”

He told me he wasn’t surprised given the state of my vehicle and gave me a lecture that I was in a “dodgy” area and not to get a ride with a tow truck driver.

Me: “A couple people have stopped and offered to help.  Everyone’s been amazingly nice so far.  As for the tow truck, it’s almost midnight and this area is pretty dead.  I don’t think I have much choice.”

Him: “Seriously, Beth, these guys put nails on the road and wait for cars.  They’re not safe.  Don’t trust them.”

He was too drunk to come pick me up, though, plus he was half an hour away.

The tow truck driver lifted my car and towed it home for me.  On the way, he told me that he had been driving home from work in the other direction when he saw me standing beside my car, obviously in trouble:

“I decided to check on you.  If you’d been a man I wouldn’t have stopped.  But because you’re a lady, I couldn’t leave you stranded.”


As you can probably guess, the conversation made me feel super safe!

He got to my place and backed my car into my parking cage.

“How much?” I asked.

“1200 rand.”


R1200 is about $140, almost half my month’s rent.  But I was still shaken and not in the mood to argue, even though he was charging me at least double what he should be.  Furthermore, I was extremely grateful that he’d arrived so soon afterwards.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done otherwise.

I gave him the money (barely had enough in my house) and asked for a receipt.

He didn’t have his receipt booklet with him.

“Can I please have your card then?”

Instead, he wrote down his name and number on a piece of paper.  He said that he’d bring me a receipt the next day.

I wrote down his company’s name as was painted on his tow truck and his license plate number.  I texted him so he had my number.  “So you’ll bring me a receipt tomorrow morning?”

“No.  I’ll call you tomorrow when I get off work,” he smiled.

Suddenly the rest of our conversation during the ride made sense (“Where were you going?  To your boyfriend’s?”): he was hitting on me.  He was hoping to get a date for Saturday night.


But I kept it together.  I didn’t have the energy for a fight.

I never heard from him.  The next day I decided it wasn’t worth contacting him for the receipt.  It’s not like I’m going to get reimbursed for it anyways.

Like I said, I’m trying to remain positive about this whole thing.  Thank goodness it didn’t happen when I speeding along the highway!  Lucky it was so close to my house!  Fortunate that it didn’t happen in Hillbrow while I was trying to maneuver around a taxi bus – I probably would have smashed into at least a dozen pedestrians!

Furthermore, three Canadian interns just moved into a house up the road from me and they have a vehicle.  On Sunday morning they took me grocery shopping so that I won’t starve over the next few days.

They also provide amble distraction.  I slept over on Saturday night and we had a braai Sunday evening.  We’ve already started compiling a list of touristy things to do.  It feels great to have expat friends again.

Back to the car:

The worst case scenario is that the car is a write-off and I have to lease a vehicle for the next 5 months.  It’ll be expensive, but money is just money.

For me, the hardest part is waiting.  I want to know the verdict so I can make a plan.  Patience is not one of my strong points.

We got it assessed on Monday and the mechanic said it will be expensive to fix: the suspension is shot, one of the wheel axles is broken, and the sump was hit quite hard.  Plus the body work.  He told us that if we go through insurance, it’ll most likely be written off.  Or it’ll be very expensive to fix because the insurance company will require that everything damaged is completely replaced.

On the other hand, if the insurance company writes it off then they’ll give us the compensation money and we can buy back the car from them for next to nothing.  Then he can repair the damage instead of replacing it and it’ll be much cheaper.

The insurance procedures here don’t make any sense to me.  Big surprise!

Regardless of the outcome, however, I’ll be commuting via taxi buses for at least a week.  This will completely change my lifestyle: I can’t travel at night, I can’t go swimming, my 20 minute commute will now take at least an hour, etc.  At least the ultimate Frisbee field is close to where I live – close enough that I’m sure I can find rides.

I always thought if my beast of car broke, it would 100% my fault.  I thought most likely I’d hit a taxi bus on Claim Street in Hillbrow.  But, in reality, the car was a death trap waiting to spring! 

I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse.

Radio Traffic Report

Yesterday was back to business as usual in Joburg.  People have returned from their holidays and the shops are open again.  Thank goodness – when I arrived back on December 31 this place was a ghost town!

On my drive to work in the morning, the radio announcer made the following traffic report:

“Welcome back to Jozi! We have some good news for you – the traffic’s not too bad. No major accidents or problem spots. Doesn’t look like anyone is in a hurry to get back to work! But please be careful anyways: there may be some new potholes you don’t remember. We had some thundershowers over the holidays that washed out the roads. Also, many of the traffic lights aren’t working. What? You thought we’d keep the robots working while you were away? What are you talking about? You’re from Joburg! You should know that of course the robots aren’t working!”

Ah South Africa.  How I missed you!

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