by Michael Drewe
A familiarity of the cities of East Asia no doubt means a familiarity with the frenetic chaos of their traffic and road system; the antitranquillity that is the mishmash of cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, rickshaws, donkeys, motorbikes, carts, tuk-tuks and pedestrians. The ‘close-your-eyes-and-hope’ kind of attitude a passenger has to adopt to transnavigating the streets, alleys and motorways. For those on a budget, or those willing to forgo the perceived ‘safer’ options, a tuk-tuk has always been the first choice. Whether bouncing around on the streets of Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Mumbai, Kolkata or Dhaka, their infamous darting manoeuvrability, gap-taking and general lack of rule following is universal.
Tuk-tuk’s or Auto-Rickshaws have developed in these cities out of a need for a widely available, cheap, quick and agile transport option, and have become an indispensable part of the public transport system, and as a result, an unavoidable piece of the urban landscape. They generally outnumber all other transport offerings and are probably the easiest to flag down, getting you right to the door of your destination. They are also instantly recognisable and familiar to the hordes of budget travellers, looking for the cheapest, easiest and most fun way to bounce from temple to bar, bus to beach.
With Joburg having now joined the ranks of the global Tuk-Tuk-eers, we have seen a rapid increase in the numbers of these three-wheelers on the streets. While Johannesburg and South Africa is a noticeable departure from the usual tuk-tuk beat, they are fundamentally the same vehicles. The number of these tuk-tuk companies has been steadily increasing since they first appeared in 2012. Are they the answer to all of Johannesburg’s frustrating traffic problems? I don’t think they profess to be. They have found and assumed a commanding position in one of the many gaping voids in our existing local transport market.
They have already been spreading through the city, visible on the streets of Sandton, Rosebank, Parkhurst, Melville, Fordsburg, Sophiatown and others. One thinks that the tuk-tuks have found their niche in the local transport market, bringing a positive and viable shuttle type public transport option. They are currently functioning in a well organised, well maintained system of safe and convenient people carriers, operating in small suburb-centric radii. They are uniquely positioned in the gaps between Metered Taxis, Mini-Bus-Taxis and walking; finding their usefulness in the distances and routes that the Taxi’s don’t normally run, the 2-to-5km just-too-far-for-walking kind of appeal. With South Africans notoriously avoiding walking anywhere, this option fits nicely into distances that internationally might normally be done on foot.
They are also cohesing well with the ever developing, city-wide transport systems of the BRT and Gautrain. Their convenience lies in getting you to the stations quickly and cheaply without necessarily having to be situated directly on the feeder bus routes.
With these tuk-tuk companies all about providing a framework of empowerment for the drivers, it is apparent that as a result the drivers take a passion in their job, with most of them finding their own Show-and-Tell way of keeping their patrons entertained and smiling.
While rather different from the systems of their international big brothers, this local variant is rapidly moving up the Success Story ladder of public transport, providing a service that would otherwise be absent from our cities. The truth is that the international tuk-tuk model would not likely function on our streets, where contending with the politics and antics of the Mini-Cab-Taxi market would no doubt leave them second best. The chaotic, disordered mess of hooting, lawless, pavement riding akin to the East would also no doubt not go down well on our streets at all.
The hope is that whatever the future holds for this interesting vehicle venture, it will remain a city-enriching, positive future; one that continues to see benefit and empowerment for a wide range of Joburgers and South Africans, and not just an exclusive A-to-B for the Sandton White Collar on a sushi run.
The author, Michael Drewe describes himself as an architect, coffee-addict, travel-junkie, and is passionate about Jozi