Aug 31, 2011

Ways in which South Africa is unquestionably superior to America



1. Television commercials. I had forgotten how thoroughly American commercials have been sanitized to reflect the dominant cultural mores.  South Africa has the occasional quite interesting commercial (see above), but more often they're just bizarre, which is still a fairly effective way of catching your attention.  American commercials are, on the other hand, simultaneously bland and irritating.

2. Public transport.  Out here in Colorado I have to drive everywhere.  As I've said before, the South African public transport system might be a bit uncomfortable at times, but it is still remarkable in its reach, cost, and speed.  Even a town the size of Cortez would have taxis leaving in several different directions at least once per day back in Mzansi.

3. Dynamic governance.  Clearly America has a bit less overt corruption (though South Africa has far superior financial regulatory bodies).  But coming home I can't escape the feeling of creeping political decay.  When I went to the airport to catch my flight home, I caught the newly-opened Gautrain. Putting aside the question of its value as a project, it was clearly quite the achievement: clean, fast, efficient, and cheap.  That, combined with the monumental feat of logistics accomplished during the 2010 World Cup, make for a country that, despite its many flaws and relative poverty, is clearly capable of vigorous action.

Meanwhile, in the mightiest empire the world has ever known, where real borrowing costs are actually negative (meaning people are paying the government to take their money), we're arguing about whether to save our largest city from a hurricane.  It's infuriating, but also just completely pathetic.  This is not how a great nation behaves.

5 comments:

  1. Hey man, I like the new design. It helps push you into a new level. "The Orbital" sounds like a place to get quality opinions.

    Now to bash one of your opinions. I would not agree that South Africa is unquestionable superior to the U.S. in public transport. Rather I think it is an interesting system that is cheap and does the bare minimum of what South Africans require which is a less interesting post title. Where there is enough demand and need for public transport in the U.S., a system is in place that might not be as cheap as South Africa but it certainly outdoes it in reach, speed, and comfort which is more remarkable because of how much larger the U.S. is in both population and size. I assume Cortez doesn't have public transport because most of it's citizens have one or many cars whereas small towns and villages in SA have to have public transport because not enough people own cars.

    If you really want to let the U.S. in on the genius of the South African taxi system. I say you start your own taxi association, start ferrying customers in the back of your mostly functioning pickup truck to the next biggest town for a few bucks but make sure to leave only whenever you feel like it, with or without a full tank of gas, and packed to an unsafe limit with passengers and tell me how it goes.

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  2. Precisely, Noah. Sorry, Ryan, but this time I have to disagree with you. There is positively no safety whatsoever involved in South Africa public transport. The vehicles are unsafe, the drivers are unsafe (an understatement), there is no accountablilty, there is a fixed rank system that you yourself talked about on one of your past blogs, and, of course, as Noah points out, the transport system works on African time. Eish. B

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  3. @B "Positively no safety whatsoever?" For rural taxis maybe, but buses and trains are far better. Intracity taxis are often in good shape too. Clearly there's some serious progress to be made, but that's bit much.

    Poking around I see that Greyhound does stop in Cortez once a day, so reach is probably somewhat comparable. I'd agree that the South African system is a bloody nightmare to deal with, especially in the cities.

    But here's what I'm getting at. Comfort, organization, and the like aside, where the South African system is head and shoulders above the US is capacity. According to the South African National Household Travel Survey (pdf), fully 40% of all South African commuters use public transport. According to this guy (which tracks with this study), about 5% of American commuters do the same. Furthermore, according to the US NHTS, about 1.9% of all trips were on public transport.

    I'd agree that the unique situation of South Africa is what forced them to develop their system, but I strongly disagree that the relative lack of capacity in America is somehow the result of endogenous market forces or the like. America's automobile culture and the sprawling cities dependent on it is the result of a lot of deliberate choices, and it's left us in extremely poor position for dealing with climate change and high oil prices. If something happened and we needed to get up to 40% of commuters on public transport tomorrow, there's no way the system could handle the demand.

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  4. With regards to safety, from the travel survey listed, sure the trains and buses are better but most people are using the khombis and the overwhelming, number one complaint in rural and metropolitan areas is lack of safety. Personally, it is a noteworthy experience when the driver isn't risking his and everyone else's life at least once per trip.

    I don't know man, I don't see quite how you can praise the South African public transport system, or is it now the number of South Africans who use the transport system, if there is no other choice for the majority of commuters. I would like to see a figure of that 40% who are choosing to use public transport that own cars. The SA travel survey listed only 26% of households having access to cars. This is in comparison to the 75% who drive alone for a commute in the U.S. The best I could figure from the study is the table listing the mode of travel based on income. Those with the most income, who were also more likely to own cars, were most likely to drive to work rather than any other form of transport. At the end of the study they even go on to say that "...it will be a struggle to maintain this public transport market share if car ownership continues to grow rapidly".

    I am unsure, and you are too I would think, whether the U.S. can support 40% of it's commuters by public transport. But the point is, if 40% needed to use a public, then don't you think a much higher capacity system would come into place? How hard would it be for people to set up a taxi rank system in the U.S.?

    Finally, I'd like to say that this is the most in-depth Internet discussion I have ever had and have thus far enjoyed it immensely. You are making me a more informed person Master Cooper, thanks.

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  5. Glad you like it :) You make some good points, and truly I was being a little glib there. I don't think most people really enjoy the South African system (except for the Gautrain, that thing is freakin awesome), and you're right that most people would probably switch to cars if they could. Really there's not much to recommend it except that it exists and serves a huge portion of the population.

    I think you're right that if 40% of US commuters needed to use public transport something would pop up eventually, but it would be a massive pain in the ass and you can bet Republicans would fight it every step of the way.

    The way I see it, South Africa has the kind of native-grown public transport you would expect to see in a middle to low-income country with relatively low car ownership. It's a dangerous nuisance in a lot of ways, but the advantage is it gives the country something to work with if they manage to confront the fact that an American-style transport system will be unworkable in the future.

    On the other hand, America's transport system is the result of gigantic car-centric government and policy intervention that looks, in retrospect, a bit foolish. One can imagine a low emissions car-based paradigm, but if gas hit twelve bucks a gallon, we'd sure be in better position if our transport looked more like South Africa. Or better yet, Japan.

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