Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

Five Questions about Paratransit in African Cities

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Brown Bag Series is a new lunchtime series of discussions on contemporary issues of African thought sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies. On Friday, October 14, 2016, Dr. Herrie Schalekamp of the University of Cape Town presented current trends in paratransit and public transportation in African cities, in conversation with Professor Jackqueline Klopp of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development.

What is mass transport like in sub-Saharan African cities?
Some cities boast the common paradigm suggested by the term “transit”: clean and efficient metro systems run by the metropolitan government. In may sub-Saharan African cities, however, it is paratransit that rules. Unlike paratransit in the United States, which often denotes transportation services specifically for the disabled, the paratransit of which Dr. Schalekamp speaks is an informal system: largely unscheduled and unregulated, and usually consisting of minibus-taxis, chapas, car rapides, and matatus. It is still a remarkably poorly understood industry, even if the market share of this type of transportation in South Africa reaches over fifty percent!

What is the difference between formal and informal transport?
Formal transport (like the formal side of other sectors) involves regulated, state-sanctioned, and often state-controlled systems of bus and rail. Informal transit, by contrast, consists largely of a vast but loose network of privately-owned minibuses travelling self-determined routes at self-determined rates. Unlike the formal system, paratransit responds to the demand it sees on the ground rather than following a plan set by a city planning department. There are over 12,000 buses on road at a time (owned by 7,000 individual businesses).

How does it work?
Each minibus is owned by an individual, often also the driver, who usually must pay membership fees to a local, citizen-based transit association which performs a management role. Passengers pay a fee – often a flat fee, sometimes varying with distance, vehicle type, or even weather – in cash directly to the driver; the driver often employs a conductor to help collect fees and communicate with passengers. Because the minibus owner is responsible for covering all costs – the cost of the vehicle, fuel, and maintenance, plus a salary to the conductor and fees to the local association and, sometimes, money to traffic police – before taking home any profit, they often rely on speedy, crowded, and constant operation at the expense of safety.
In another widespread model, owners may hold a fleet of vehicles and employ several drivers and conductors, thereby creating new, low-skill employment opportunities (though not alleviating some of the safety issues). This element must not be overlooked: in South Africa, for example, there are few economic opportunities that require a low level of skill, and driving a minibus often serves as a reliable route to an acceptable livelihood.

How are paratransit systems being reformed?
In some cities, the state attempts to formalize the entire system by replacing the minibus network with a state-developed bus or bus rapid transit (BRT) system. This often entails the redevelopment of major city arteries to accommodate dedicated bus lanes as well as card-based payment systems which replace direct cash payments. In concert with this, the government may also organize existing paratransit operators into state-managed companies, regulating both their behavior and their vehicles and utilizing these new companies to fill gaps in the bus or BRT system. In Cape Town, for example, the government formed over 400 owner-drivers into two companies, removing 600 unregulated minibuses from the road. As expected, this method of reform requires massive overhead costs as well as a certain level of density to support bus and BRT systems.
Other cities have enacted a system of subsidized loans for vehicle maintenance or upgrading as well as organization assistance to drivers. While the resultant professional organizations may enable greater efficiency of routes and operations, the loan system largely benefits wealthier paratransit operators, as operators must still expend quite a bit of their own capital to carry out any vehicle upgrades.

What are some persistent problems in reforming the paratransit system?
Target system: The vehicle owner sets a flat rate which he expects to collect every day: everything above this target is used to pay fuel and other expenses and, lastly, the crew operating the minibus. This system incentivizes reckless behavior and fosters a short-term business view as well as non-compliance and corruption as operators simply seek to maximize daily revenue. Such is detrimental for long-term planning.
Operator Perceptions: Even with the proliferation of state-driven reform efforts, drivers do not feel that the government is helping at all. In contrast, many feel that the government is actively aiming to hurt their livelihoods.
Government Perceptions: Because it exists outside of the government’s regulatory framework, paratransit is usually seen as uniformly illegitimate and constantly in need of abolition, even while it serves an essential transit function in many cities across sub-Saharan Africa. This is true even in cities lacking the density to support more formalized transit systems or the funding to successfully construct and maintain new systems.

If you are interested in learning about interesting topics about Africa, don’t miss our next Brown Bag Series! We will return on November 30, when Natacha Nsabimana will discuss landscapes of violence and the citizen court system in post-genocide Rwanda. Following that, Dr. Laurent Fourchard will speak on December 12 on everyday practices of security, origins, xenophobia, and violence and the ways they manifest in Africa's cities.