But before leaving I want to share thoughts which have arisen from what I have seen. This is by no means a definite analysis of South Africa, just a few ideas.
16 seaters – How to keep transportation costs down.
The transport I saw in South Africa is amazing. Those well-off have a car. But they are not very many. A lot of people need to travel to work, go places but have no car. Few trains exist. Buses are few and far between.
So how do people get around with little money? They use 16 seaters.
A 16 seater is basically a smallish van in which 16 people can just about squeeze in. It is not bigger than my Vito which is made for 8.
Now these 16 seaters go from anywhere to everywhere. I don’t mean that there are stops everywhere where people gather, in fact if you walk in a township or along the road and a 16 seater (they call them taxis) drives by it will hoot its horn if it has got a free seat and if you show interest it will stop and pick you up. That means that they can pick you up at your door step and drop you off directly where you wish. If they aren’t going to your area they will stop by another 16 seater and let you go to the next vehicle. This is done with a lot of shouting and hooting but seems to be quite a efficient system. In town centres or town ships there will be more 16 seaters than cars. Every few seconds one will go by. There are central stops where waiting and exchanging will be done. These hubs are frantic places where it is difficult to drive through. But thanks to these hubs people can get virtually to any place in a town but also anywhere all over the country. On motorways you are bound to see these 16 seaters whizzing along.
From what I have seen in these few weeks, in South Africa they have succeeded in bringing the convenience and flexibility of a taxi which picks you up at your door step and brings you to your final destination with the avantages of low cost often thought only possible with mass transportation. It even beats mass transportation with the frequency of the rides.
The main problem is that the drivers, to keep their rides affordable, like driving with a full car. That means that they leave the hub when they are full. They sacrifice punctuality to cost. On busy routes this is not a problem. If you are going far you might have to wait for hours. But once people get off they start hooting to fill it up again.
Now this system has got its drawbacks, which aren’t necessarily inherent to the system but linked to the way it is managed.
To start with you never see a white person in one of those 16 seaters. Is it because they all have cars? Maybe. But the rumour has it that you might never arrive at destination. If you are white you risk being mugged or even kidnapped.
Then those 16 seaters drive often quite recklessly. They always seem to be in a hurry so don’t follow all safety rules like stopping at red lights or overtaking with good visibility. Horrible accidents are reported where pedestrians have been run over on the pavements.
Also they are extremely noisy. They use their horn to inform that they have free spaces. That means that as long as they are not full they are hooting continuously. Hence when you get close to a hub there is not a moment of silence. Just try to imagine it. Terrifying.
One thing I haven’t sorted out is how to know where they are going. Still a mystery to be solved.
Nevertheless overall I find it a fantastic system.
There is a full utilisation of the capacity of each 16 seater. They are not as big as buses so easier to fill up. And contrary to taxis they keep on taking people on to stay full.
There is an extreme capillarity which means that they go to the most remote areas where normal bus routes would never go let alone trains.
This organisation needs very little infrastructure as you don’t need to build railways and bus stops.
They give direct self-employment to thousands of drivers.
The system can grow very quickly.
The 16 seaters are affordable as they normally leave the hub when they are full and the cost is shared by all the passengers.
And last but not least it works. People can actually rely on this system to get to work.
I have heard from fellow travellers that similar systems are quite prevalent in maany places in Africa.
Could this system work in France or the UK? I don’t know. What do you think?