In the provincial capital of Mbale, in eastern Uganda, it’s not uncommon to start your morning commute riding shotgun on a bicycle. I visited this metropolis of more than 400,000 people frequently in the late 2000s, and I often began my day as a passenger in the tacked-on second seat of one of these bodas, wheeling from my hotel to a place on the other edge of town where shared taxis congregated. Three other travelers and I would pile into one of these taxis for a 20-minute ride down a main road, and then I would hop out and hail another boda for the final mile of my journey.
Once overwhelmingly rural, Africa is urbanizing at a faster rate than any other region on the planet. With the world’s lowest rates of automobile ownership, urban Africans also have the world’s greatest demand for mass transit. And they are meeting their own needs with enterprise and creativity, largely fueled by private resources. The successes of the continent’s ad hoc urban transit systems are partly due to government neglect. Unable to keep pace with growth, governments are simply staying out of the way and letting private operators assemble inexpensive networks of buses and taxis that can adapt quickly to shifting consumer needs.
These days, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a typical commute is much less efficient and dramatically more expensive than my morning rides in Uganda. This wealthy and sophisticated metropolitan area—home to an underground train running beneath a body of water, some of the longest bridges in the nation, and a massive highway system—has much to learn about mass transit from the poorest part of the world.
Taking the Tro Tro
In Accra, Ghana, where I lived and worked in the early 2000s, the standard way of commuting is to board a tro tro, a minivan that has been reconfigured to seat about 16 people. The van is staffed by a driver and a fare collector. It stops at consistent pickup spots, but you can also hail one as it passes by. A short commute costs as little as 10 to 25 cents. All the vans are privately owned; more often than not, drivers and fare collectors are employees of the owners. (Firm data on how many are owners—and on African transit systems in general, from ridership to costs to technical challenges—is hard to come by.)
Because they don’t operate on a fixed schedule but tend to wait until they collect a nearly full load before departing, the vans are rarely empty. Because they are inexpensive to operate, the vans are ubiquitous. Because there are so many on the major roads in a city, wait times are very short—usually less than five minutes, even on weekends.
Private cars, sometimes called bush taxis, operate in parallel with the minivans. The taxis link Accra with nearby cities and take passengers places within the city, usually at a cost of about $1 a ride (about half a day’s wages). While drivers typically wait to fill a taxi before departing, passengers in a hurry can offer to purchase the remaining seats in a car and use them, as many do, to securely lodge luggage.
Minivans play the same role in many African countries. The Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation estimates that there are tens of thousands of minivans on the road. “Mass transit is a real example of the dense social capital arising out of the African urban experience,” says Stewart Brand, a Bay Area–based futurist who has studied African cities—especially Lagos, Nigeria, the largest city in Africa—for evidence of creative, self-organizing solutions to social problems. “There’s a huge urbanization process underway, and transportation is one of the many things getting organized in appealing ways.”
Others are struck by the surprising benefits of the complex mishmash of African transit arrangements. One American visitor to Gambia last January was struck by how minivans not only deliver people to their destinations but also promote social cohesion. “We were riding along, and every seat was full,” she wrote at the blog Hey Sarah Sarah. “We stopped to pick up a bunch of school children, and I was confused as to how we would fit them. The boys just climbed in and sat on whatever laps were available.”
The networks of minivans are major economic engines, generating employment as well as opportunities for investors. Accra has not spawned “chains,” or branded minivan services, but owners often aggregate vans secretly, gaining economies of scale through stealth. A decade ago, for example, a study by Britain’s Department for Development found that 90 percent of the minivans in Kampala, Uganda, were owned by private individuals at an average cost of $3,000 each.
The Africans’ commercial creativity isn’t unbridled. Municipal authorities, or even national governments, sometimes set fare guidelines for minivans. Routes are also subject to influence and coercion. Both police and private criminals have been known to extort unofficial payments from minivan drivers. In Nairobi the struggle by police and criminals to profit from the minivan, or matatu, trade is intense and often sparks violence. In July Nairobi police arrested 120 people on suspicion of extorting money from drivers.
Safety is another persistent issue. Operator liability is low; passengers are presumed to ride at their own risk, and that risk can be significant. The typical bush taxi has a cracked windshield and lacks safety belts. In Kampala, boda bikes are motorized. Responsible drivers wear helmets—and carry extras for passengers—but not all of them do. Minivans occasionally drop parts mid-route without causing a driver to pause. Travel within cities is generally safest because speeds are relatively slow and frequent police checks insure that drivers have the proper certification. Inter-city travel means higher speeds and more hazards. Congestion can be a serious problem, and Christof Hertel, a program director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, expects that “traffic problems will steadily worsen and emissions…will steadily rise.” Comfort is also tough to come by. Passengers are often packed tight—and aren’t always human. When traveling between cities, you may find yourself sitting next to a live chicken or goat.
Bypassing the BART in San Francisco
You will rarely find a chicken or a cracked windshield on San Francisco’s gleaming, publicly funded Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains and buses, but commuters are abandoning BART in significant numbers nonetheless, driven out by a combination of rising fares, declining service quality, and the comparative attractiveness of driving cars. In the Bay Area, buses and trains run nearly empty for many hours during weekdays and weekends. High government subsidies are required to sustain an expensive light rail system that carries 330,000 passengers a day.