Cape Town has a number of public transport options, and a sophisticated network of car hire companies. It also has great road infrastructure, and well-equipped and plentiful specialist traffic police. Despite all of this, travelling in Cape Town can be genuinely hazardous, and there are dangers associated with each mode of transport that you should know about.
The Metrorail rail network is quite extensive through Cape Town’s suburbs, but ends in an area called the foreshore – the lower, and less glamorous – end of the city centre. It doesn’t run to the waterfront, Table Mountain or the Atlantic seaboard. There are 2 classes of travel: 1st class and 3rd class. Metrorail trains do experience a concerning level of all crimes – especially robbery, although it tends to be on particular lines – the Bonteheuwel line is seen as the most problematic. The Simonstown line is generally regarded as fairly safe during the day. R263 million ($31m) has been set aside to improve all aspects of the service dramatically by 2015, but until then we recommend that you always travel 1st class (the coaches are marked with the number 1), always choose a carriage with other people in it, and avoid the trains during peak travelling times and after dark. The main Cape Town terminus is a busy place, and you need to be careful of pickpockets and bag snatchers.
Problematically, the train service effectively ends by 20h00, even on weekdays.
The Golden Arrow bus system’s more than 900 buses operate everywhere in the city, including the Atlantic seaboard, Hout Bay and Simonstown, 7 days a week. On the routes you’re likely to use, they’re generally safe, but be alert for petty thieves. If you feel insecure, sit close to the driver where you can be seen in the mirror. Your experiences may vary, as most bus users have no vested interest in tourism and there have been some reports from tourists of hostility towards them (although no violent encounters). The place names displayed on the buses are often confusing (or wrong), so always ask the driver where the bus is going before getting on.
The MyCiti bus service is a recently launched service that runs from the city centre to the airport, all along the West Coast to Bloubergstrand, and to Gardens and Sea Point. It is very safe, with 33 dedicated security staff patrolling by bicycle and on the buses. The only significant crime reported so far has been drug trafficking. You shouldn’t wait more than 20 minutes at any point on the various routes.
Minibus taxis are a source of pride to most South Africans, and they can be 90% cheaper than metered taxis. They also run everywhere and operate at all hours, but they have a terrible safety record. This is about the driving, not the passengers – broadly speaking, taxi users are ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. The taxi operators (driver and fare collector) are, however, often problematic.
The Department of Transport acknowledges that these taxis have little regard for the rules of the road. Speeding, overloading of passengers, unroadworthy vehicles, abusive treatment of passengers and dangerously aggressive driving are all features of the industry. Given that the South African Institute of Race Relations has measured that you are 3 times more likely to die in a minibus taxi accident than in a car, in general we do not recommend using minibus taxis.
There is one exception to this rule. Lately the City – Camps Bay route routes (both the one past Sea Point and the one past Table Mountain) have begun to adapt their behaviour and meet more international standards to attract tourists to use them. Don’t use a taxi that doesn’t look structurally safe – missing lights, badly damaged bodywork and cracked windscreens are fairly common. We also advise that you never use a minibus taxi if you’ll be the only passenger (3 people plus the driver is a suggested rule of thumb), and preferably not after dark.
The city has a large fleet of metered taxis, operated by several competing companies. Generally they operate on a book-by-phone basis, and are usually reliable. Operating 24 hours a day, they are safe and well maintained. They each have individual ID numbers clearly displayed. Take note of the number as you get in, as any problems can be reported to their office or the police.
On an international scale, they’re also very cheap. PriceOfTravel.com’s price comparison ranks Cape Town taxi prices at 40th in the world; cheaper than any US city, and all European cities except Athens. Prices are usually displayed on the car door and can be as low as R8/km (under $1/km). You can negotiate set prices for longer distances (like the airport). We recommend their use for most of your travel within the main city, and all of your night time travel.
There is a massive variety of car hire options, ranging from 1970’s era VW Beetles that only just qualify as roadworthy (but are very cheap) to elite luxury sports cars. Because there are dangerous areas close to attractions you may want to visit, we recommend that you use a GPS guidance system if you’re driving a hire car.
Car hijacking is a very real South African phenomenon. They do occur in the USA as well (up to 49 000 per year) but per capita are 18 times more common in SA. 2011 was the lowest incidence with over 10 600 carjackings! While it happens mostly in Gauteng (the Western Cape province experienced only 457 of these [4%]), it does happen in Cape Town as well.
Traffic lights (“robots” as they’re called locally) will very often have pedestrians standing in the road either begging or selling a vast array of items. Criminals make use of this fact to wait for you to be stopped by a red light. Either solo, or as group, they will pull out guns and demand the vehicle. Statistically, there is a very high likelihood that they will shoot to kill if you resist. In this situation, keep your hands visible, open the door and get out as fast as possible. Say nothing, avoid eye contact (showing a reluctance to identify them), and run away.
Particularly at night, and in quiet areas, if you become suspicious of someone approaching your vehicle, it is better to break the law and drive away – even through a red light. If seen, the police will often be understanding if your concern was valid and you’re apologetic. In Cape Town, car hijackings are very localised to the same gang-controlled areas that we generally recommend you completely avoid, like Philippi East and parts of Mitchell’s Plein.
Advice about driving: Minibus taxis will tend to drive aggressively and take advantage of almost non-existent gaps – expecting them to do so will keep you safer on the road. You should also know that during peak traffic times there are several roads in Cape Town that are reserved for public transport only. These reserved lanes are well patrolled, and the police are quite unforgiving of infringements. Also be aware, especially later at night, that (despite heavy penalties) a culture of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs is still very much a part of local life. Treat all other drivers with caution. And remember to drive on the left hand side of the road!