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What Sub-Saharan Africa Can Teach San Francisco

Mass transit doesn’t have to mean massive government spending.

G. Pascal Zachary
May 17, 2011

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.

BART ridership is down by 5 percent during the last 12 months and about 10 percent below its historic peak. San Jose’s light rail system and the California commuter train service that links Silicon Valley to San Francisco report similar trends; so do bus services in the region. Lower ridership highlights the problem of high operating costs, due chiefly to wages. The average BART employee earns $114,000 a years in wages and benefits. The system gets about 60 percent of its revenue from fares, with about one-third of its budget coming from taxpayer subsidies. San Francisco’s MUNI bus system, the backbone of public transit in terms of ridership, costs the city more than $2 for each passenger ride.

 High operating costs are not the only financial burden. Capital projects, aimed at expanding ridership, carry huge price tags. A planned overhead tram service to directly connect a BART stop in Oakland with the Oakland airport—a distance of 3.2 miles, which is currently served by buses that charge an average of 2,833 riders a day $3 each—is budgeted at $484 million. The project was originally forecast to cost one-third that much. BART’s optimistic forecast is for 10,000 riders a day.

Meanwhile, the economic slowdown and higher unemployment—more than 10 percent in the Bay Area—means an even smaller pool of commuters. State and local governments, facing tough budget decisions, are casting a critical eye at mass transit costs. In this environment, sticking with traditional transit systems and their old-fashioned funding mechanisms will do little more than hasten their deaths. 

But there is a way out. As it turns out, BART is not primarily a train service. It is mainly a parking-lot-and-bus system that happens to feed into a train network. Adding fixed stations to a system that was set in steel four decades ago is outrageously expensive. A proposed nine-mile extension of BART from the suburb of Fremont to the city of San Jose is expected to cost an astonishing $6 billion. With track extensions ruled out in most cases because of cost, BART has tried to cast a wider net by strategically building what it calls “transit centers”—glorified parking lots where passengers can come, park, and catch buses to the nearest BART station.

The newest of these BART transit centers is about a mile from my house in the hill town of Hercules, 25 miles from the center of San Francisco. From the Hercules transit center, passengers take a bus to the nearest BART station, about six miles south. Buses run only three times an hour during peak times. These buses are full-sized, rarely anywhere near full, and operated by a different government agency, the West Contra Costa Transit Authority. Bus drivers don’t go directly to the nearest BART station, stopping instead at three other transit centers (at least) along the way. Covering those six miles typically takes more than 20 minutes. 

Now a year old, the Hercules transit center is never more than half full and often virtually empty on weekends. The problem isn’t BART but rather the “feeder” logic. If a rider needs to drive to the transit center, he or she may as well skip the bus and drive a little further to the train station—which is surrounded by a sea of its own parking spaces. Or even drive all the way into the city.

All of which is self-defeating, given that the goal of mass transit is to get people out of their cars. The African experience suggests immediate options. Bicycles or motorcycles, staffed perhaps by underemployed young people, could shuttle commuters to the transit center. Then fleets of minivans would depart regularly and go directly to the BART station. At non-peak times, private cars, for a slightly higher fare, would carry people to the station. By increasing frequency, the African-style combination of minivans and shared taxis would cut wait times for feeder transport to BART stations to nearly zero, making the journey to the BART station far shorter and making riding the rails far more appealing.

One reason we know minivans would work to plug the gaps in Bay Area mass transit is that they already do. Consider the way airport parking lots function in San Francisco and Oakland. Travelers drive to a lot, park, and then a minivan drops them off at their terminal. Minivans run often, wait times are minimal, and the cost is low. But there is one big difference between airport parking lots and the BART system: The airport lots are privately owned. To lower costs and improve the experience of mass transit—in California and across the nation—the network must let private entrepreneurs in. Only private operators have the incentive and the flexibility to improvise in necessary ways.

Can Sub-Saharan Africa Help San Francisco?

To transplant the efficiencies of African transit systems to American soil, laws must change. “The lessons from Africa are fascinating, but they will be hard to apply here,” says Randal O’Toole, a Cato Institute senior fellow specializing in transportation issues.

Jitneys, the technical term in the U.S. for shared taxis, are limited to airport runs; wider use is permitted only in a few American cities, notably Atlantic City and Houston. Many transit agencies do already save money by contracting out jobs to private companies, but mainly these deals are limited to driving large buses. Denver, for instance, contracts out half of its buses. The private buses operate at about half the cost of the rest of the fleet. Organized labor is a major barrier to more-radical African-style improvisation. Asking idle youth to bike commuters to and from train stations, for instance, might prove politically impossible. Furthermore, safety standards and legal liability are far costlier in the U.S., complicating efforts to lower the cost of mass transit while improving its coverage.

The African experience offers a competing vision of how a densely packed, increasingly prosperous people can get from here to there without driving cars. African governments’ “neglect” of mass transit creates openings for nimble entrepreneurs to adapt their transportation offerings to the constantly changing needs of urban consumers. In the Bay Area, government is too deeply involved in mass transit. Systems are too rigid, too expensive, too unfriendly to entrepreneurs, and too out of touch with consumer preferences. 

But the stagnation and contraction of mass transit I see in my own backyard is not inevitable. By taking inspiration from the fleet of minivans, bikes, jitneys, and taxis employed in a part of the world widely seen as backward and impoverished, America could rejuvenate its own creaky and crumbling transportation networks. 

G. Pascal Zachary (g.zachary@gmail.com), who blogs at africaworksgpz.com, is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Married to Africa (Scribner). This column first appeared at Reason.com.



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