Transport in the Global South: Informal, but Hardly Insignificant
A discussion between Sir Paul Collier, Dr. Tim Schwanen, and Dr. Clemence Cavoli focused on informal transport systems: their strengths and weaknesses, their role in optimal city design, and pertinent government regulation.
Cities in the Global South are experiencing unprecedented urbanisation. Yet many are not realising the gains in living standards and per capita income that have historically accompanied urbanisation in the developed world – a phenomenon Glaeser (2014) and many others have referred to as “poor megacities.” Transport systems, which enable the agglomeration effects that give urban areas their economic advantage, will play a crucial role in determining the fate of these cities.
Perhaps the most important feature of transport in the Global South is the prevalence of informal transport, which refers to “a flexible mode of passenger transportation that does not follow fixed schedules,” (Behrens et al. 2016, 5-7). This can include fixed-route, shared-ride vehicles, like Cape Town’s minibus taxis, as well as demand-responsive, single-passenger vehicles like Kampala’s boda-bodas. Approximately 70% of road-based public trips in Johannesburg fall into this category, as do around 90% in Lagos and up to 98% in Dar es Salaam (Behrens et al. 2016). Cognisant of both the importance of transport in urban growth and the sheer scale of current informal networks, cities in the Global South are urgently re-evaluating the structure and operations of their informal transport systems.
It is in this context that the Oxford Urbanists and the International Growth Centre (IGC) co-hosted a panel called ‘Future of Informal Transport in Rapidly Growing Cities’ on Wednesday 15 November 2017. Priya Manwaring, a cities economist at IGC, moderated the discussion, which included Sir Paul Collier (Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government and Director, International Growth Centre), Dr. Tim Schwanen (Associate Professor of Transport and Human Geography and Director, Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford), and Dr. Clemence Cavoli (Research Associate, Centre for Transport Studies, University College London).
Drawing from their experiences working in developing cities, ranging from Manila to Maputo to Amman, three key topics emerged in the discussion: (1) the strengths and weaknesses of informal transport (2) the role of informal transport in optimal city design, and (3) government regulation of informal transport.
(1) Strengths and weaknesses of informal transport
Dr. Schwanen and Dr. Cavoli elaborated on the many strengths of informal transport, noting that these systems often outperform their formal counterparts in terms of reliability and in-ride safety. As Dr. Schwanen put it, “they may be informal, but certainly not unorganised.” By its very nature, informal transport is also more adaptable to changes in demand patterns than formal bus and rail.
However, informal transport can also exhibit significant downsides, as well. Dr. Cavoli noted that drivers, often striving to earn a living wage in what can be an intensely competitive sector, are prone to speeding and overcrowding vehicles. In addition, vehicles can create congestion in dense urban areas, where, from a city planner’s perspective, larger volume buses may be the preferred option. Sir Collier emphasised that the lack of regularly scheduled stops and timetables often characterising informal transport can inhibit commuter decision-making and overall urban efficiency.
Throughout the evening, Dr. Schwanen stressed the importance of social context in discussions of informal transport, highlighting that this sector generally provides both mobility and employment for historically marginalised segments of the city. He also cautioned that the very term “informal” can be too broad for discussing very different urban contexts and transport systems.
(2) The role of informal transport in optimal city design
Sir Collier outlined what he considers the optimal transport network design in the Global South: a central city area served by high-occupancy Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), with informal vehicles providing a “feeder” service in less-dense, peripheral urban areas. In doing so, he emphasised the role of transport in efficiently connecting people to employment and points of interests rather providing employment as a sector itself, and he cautioned against what he sees as two equally misguided attitudes on informal transport.
On the one hand, “high modernists” overlook the strengths of informal transport by replacing them with “Singapore-style” rail and bus networks. On the other hand, “NGO, pro-individual rights” advocates see regulation on informal transport systems as infringing on drivers. Dr. Cavoli and Dr. Schwanen also supported this vision but noted the practical difficulties in rearranging the routes of informal vehicles in a rational and systematic manner. Audience questions mainly cantered on this theme, prompting discussion of policies such as growth boundaries and road space rationing to limit congestion.
(3) Government regulation of informal transport
City and regional governments across the world have fraught relationships with the informal transport sector. In the mode of “high modernism” referred to by Sir Collier, some governments have sought to drastically reduce informal transport. Others have implemented bus or rail lines in direct competition with existing informal routes, provoking backlash from informal operators.
Recognising that governments of many Global South cities are of heavily constrained, but panellists highlighted ways in which governments can utilise informal transport systems to help make up for this. Dr. Cavoli, for instance, stressed the usefulness of taking advantage of the efficiency and adaptability of informal transport in cases where formal modes of transport suffer from operational or financial dysfunction (Cape Town presents one example). Dr. Schwanen suggested municipal governments’ provision of financing for informal vehicle upgrades, instead of vehicles or other capital directly, can amount to a particularly high-return investment strategy.
Paul Healy is an M.Sc. candidate in Economics for Development at the University of Oxford, where he is researching the ways in which public good provision can ameliorate or exacerbate inequality in developing cities. Prior to Oxford, Paul worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co., where he served city and state government agencies across the U.S., and as an intern at WhereIsMyTransport, a transport startup in Cape Town. He holds a Bachelor of Arts, from Georgetown University.
Behrens et al. (2016): Paratransit in African Cities, Routledge.
Glaeser, E. (2014): “A World of Cities: The Causes and Consequences of Urbanization in Poorer Countries,” Journal of the European Economic Association, 12(5).