Public Transport in African Cities

Many African cities, like many other cities in developing countries, have no or poor public transport run informally by thousands of independent operators. The fleet mainly consists of crunchy mini-buses that provide no comfort to passengers, but contribute plenty of pollutants to the air. In Kampala they are called Matatus; in Johannesburg, minibus taxis; and in Gaborone, Combis. A vehicle has around 15 seats and offers you no possibility to move around once you are seated. You are lucky if the bus departs right afterward, but if you start your journey at the first terminal/station, most of the time you will have to wait in the burning sun until almost of all the seats are filled. No space for your shopping bag or other baggage. No driver wears a uniform and there is no timetable. The vehicle calls on anywhere along the route to pick up and drop off passengers. The driving style is mostly dangerous and ignores traffic rules. This is because drivers want to ensure that their vehicles will carry enough passengers to cover their operational and maintenance costs.

Matatus in Kampala

This is an example of how the private sector will jump into the market when the government has little or no role in providing public transport, even while public transport is essential for the vast majority of the population for economic reasons. This large demand should be seen as an opportunity to address equity and congestion in cities. A few BRT systems are in operation in African cities, but they are insufficient to meet the demand.

There seems a curious inability for local planners to solve their problems, perhaps because they (the planners) are typically ignored. The highway engineering industry, in all its stages, is highly developed. There are many more highway engineers than transport planners. It seems that it is far easier to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on grade separation than tens of millions on a dedicated bus lane. The political dividend of a new road is seen as being much higher than the provision of a transit system. It is possibly because big road projects have more potential for corruption.

From time to time, the World Bank and other donors conduct studies and draft plans to develop a mass transit system in various African cities, but very few are implemented. Perhaps replacing the existing public transport system is a bridge too far for some countries. As a start, they might regulate and integrate them with the existing formal public transport options such as BRT, which is not only far less expensive, but also the low-hanging fruit. A public service obligation scheme might be another option. The authority collects the fare through a smart-card application and sets a per-kilometre rate to be paid to transport operators, which covers all costs and provides reasonable profit for them. In return, the operators must meet pre-determined key performance indicators. Implementing such a scheme will ensure business sustainability for the operators and standardised travel comfort for passengers.

It is, however, worth noting that by doing this the government must prepare for resistance from the operators’ side, as this sector is normally quite lucrative and politically sensitive as such. Yet this hurdle should not stop policymakers, as regulatory reform is indispensable if high-quality public transport is to be provided.

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