A Racially Segregated City Gets a Lift to the 21st Century

The prospect of owning a car in Cape Town, South Africa means different things to different people. For some, it’s a non-negotiable way to get...

The prospect of owning a car in Cape Town, South Africa means different things to different people. For some, it’s a non-negotiable way to get around—so much so that most white residents think nothing of hopping in a car to travel a short distance that might actually be better served by walking. But for much of the city’s non-white population living in townships at the periphery, but working in the city center, owning a car is a luxury they may need, but can’t afford.

Racial and economic stratification exists in most modern cities. But until recently, the very thing that often serves as the great equalizer in major metropolises—public transportation—was notably absent from Cape Town. However, with the roll-out of the MyCiTi Bus system, which debuted in the second half of last year, the Mother City is getting its first taste of what it might be like to have a fully-functioning public transportation system.

More than two decades after apartheid, Cape Town is still known as one of South Africa’s most racially segregated cities. Nowhere is this more apparent than when one attempts to move through the city-scape without a car. A street culture where white, car owning people don’t walk on the street much—owing to perceived safety fears—creates a dynamic where whites who do choose to walk end up feeling unsafe. It’s a self perpetuating cycle that has for a long time meant that the city’s racial groups remain largely separated, with the exception of commercial or transactional spaces like shops, cafes or supermarkets.

The new MyCiTi Bus is priced relatively on par with the existing network of informal minibus taxis that the city’s non-car owners have historically used to get around; about 5-7 rand per ride, depending on time of day and route ($1 equals roughly 11 rand). While the buses are not yet numerous or frequent enough to completely replace the ubiquitous mini-bus taxis, the fact that there's a transit system with defined stops, law abiding drivers and Google maps integration--none of which is the case with the alternative--is a huge step forward for the city. Though it does not yet fully serve the townships or outer-lying suburbs of the city, there are plans to expand to other routes and modes of transit as well.

Despite being in its infancy stage—there are certainly no apps which track in real time when the next bus is coming, which can be frustrating when they’re late—it’s positive to see social innovation address a transit problem in this part of the world. It’s also great news for travellers and visitors to the city, as it means an opportunity to see a more holistic picture of Cape Town and its people, which can be easy to miss if you're staying in one of the city's luxurious Camp's Bay hotels and hopping in a car to get from "sundowner" cocktails to a fusion restaurant.

Most encouragingly, what might be a mundane site on a New York City subway—a housekeeper sitting next to an art student sitting next to a professional all on their way to work—is becoming a little more normal in a city that was once defined by its stratification.

Photos courtesy of Rowan Byers & Flickr user RichardatUCT