Photo essay: Rapid urbanisation and public transport in Johannesburg

6 min readOct 24, 2022

What began as a 19th-century gold mining community is now South Africa’s largest city and home to Africa’s biggest airport. Johannesburg is in the Gauteng province in the north of the country, close to Pretoria and on the edge of the world’s largest known gold deposit. Gauteng might be the smallest of South Africa’s nine provinces, but it contains the largest share of the country’s population, with a total of 15.5 million people living in the province.

There is a high level of crime in Johannesburg, and the city ranks among one of the worst in the world for road traffic fatalities. South Africa’s road safety reputation as a whole is dire, with 25.1 fatalities per 100,000 people. Public transport’s reputation doesn’t fare much better either. Metrorail suburban trains are unreliable and have high crime rates, and while the Gautrain high-speed commuter train is secure and reliable, with strict security staff, walking to and from stations after dark is not recommended.

The Gauteng region continues to experience rapid urbanisation, and some reports suggest that Pretoria and Johannesburg will merge to form a new megacity by 2030. A third of Johannesburg’s citizens use private cars to travel from A to B. That’s compared to 15% who use formal public transport and 7% who walk.

Gauteng’s magnum opus

The 80-kilometre mass rapid transit railway system, the Gautrain, was launched to great fanfare in 2010, during the 19th FIFA World Cup. It was the first high-speed urban train on the continent, hailed as a solution to Johannesburg’s heavy traffic jams. The Gautrain links central Johannesburg with the main business districts to the north, and heads further to Pretoria and the busiest airport on the continent, O.R. Tambo International. Ridership suffered greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic, falling by more than 76%.

Off-peak trips cost R50 (2.45 GBP, 2.97 USD), and you can top up your Gautrain card to use the service. It enjoys a positive reputation, widely considered the fastest and most reliable public transport system in Johannesburg. The Gautrain web and mobile apps are key parts of the operator’s commitment to a convenient and comfortable passenger journey and allows passengers to use the app to plan their journeys and check the timetable.

Each Gautrain station has a network of Gautrain feeder buses connected to them. These provide reliable transport to and from nearby suburbs and run every 12 minutes in peak hours and every 20 minutes during off-peak times. People flag down the buses to board them and have to press the buzzer to alert the driver their intention to alight.

Gautrain bus service in Johannesburg, South Africa

City bus services

Joburg’s primary and largest bus service is the Metrobus, covering most of the Metropolitan Municipality. Many focus on schools, and they transport around 90,000 passengers every single day, with most of them in operation during the early morning rush hour, from 6am until about 9:30am. But you’ll be lucky to find a Metrobus after 6pm or at the weekend. The operator has defined six zones in the city, and the number of zones crossed determines the fare. There are several different tag cards available: green, for adults that use the bus every day, red tags for school children, yellow for people with disabilities, and black tags for pensioners, who receive a 50% discount on trips.

Passengers board a Metrobus in Johannesburg, South Africa

The BRT system, Rea Vaya (“we are going” in the Scamto dialect), links the Johannesburg Central Business District and Braamfontein with Soweto. There are 21 routes stopping at 58 stations along the 59 km stretch, and buses run from 5am to 9pm on weekdays, and until 7pm at the weekends. Payment is via a smart card and there are 10% discounts for those travelling during off-peak hours, with impressively exact off-peak times: between 8.31am-2.59pm Monday to Friday, and any time at the weekend. Rea Vaya’s fares are measured per distance travelled, so short journeys of less than 5 km cost R9 (0.44 GBP, 0.53 USD) while a standard single trip costs R25 (1.23 GBP, 1.48 USD).

A congested street in Johannesburg, South Africa

Rea Vaya provides enclosed bus stops with raised platforms and security staff, modelled on similar systems in Latin America, and commuters can enjoy art showcased by local artists and free WiFi at certain stations. There are a few pain points, however: the payment system is sometimes offline, meaning passengers can’t top up their cards, and locals recommend asking staff for assistance prior to entering a station for the first time, as the whole process isn’t that user-friendly.

A BRT platform
Passengers wait inside a BRT platform

Rail safety concerns

The Metrorail Gauteng is a network of commuter rail services in the Gauteng province, and has three main hubs: Park Station in Johannesburg, Germiston Station on the East Rand, and Pretoria Station. It’s notoriously dangerous, with theft common. Theft is made even easier due to the Metrorail’s overcrowding, with people packed in like sardines.

Informally run minibus taxis are one of the standard modes of transport across South Africa. 69% of households use these taxi services, and the industry is worth R50 billion a year (2.4 billion GBP, 2.9 billion USD). That’s far, far more than the publicly run buses and trains, although people advise against taking them at night, due to safety concerns. It’s also advisable to stay alert at taxi ranks, as they are often crowded and are a prime pickpocketing spot.

Passengers board a minibus taxi
Commuters get ready to pay for their trip in a minibus taxi
A trader sells goods to commuters at a taxi rank
A trader sells goods to commuters at a taxi rank

Tuk tuks are another informal mode of transport, used for short journeys and for travelling between suburbs. Fares start from R35 (1.72 GBP, 2.07 USD), and passengers should, ideally, agree on a rate before getting in.

Public transport in Gauteng is expensive, with some commuters spending up to 20% of their salary to use it. There are safe, reliable, and convenient modes available, but they are not the most widely used. As Johannesburg continues to grow and blend with Pretoria, it faces several public transport challenges: low ridership on certain modes, and safety and reliability on others. An efficient, affordable, and widely used public transport system is still something of a pipe dream, but infrastructure, accessibility, and safety must be addressed to reduce congestion in the city and to improve quality of life for its citizens for the future.

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Stories about data, mobility, and the Majority World from the WhereIsMyTransport team.