In emerging-market megacities, informal public transport shines during the crisis

A woman wears a mask inside a minibus taxi in Johannesburg, on March 17, 2020. (Michele Spatari / AFP via Getty Images)

Every week, 5 billion commuters in emerging markets have no choice but to turn to informal transport networks to get around. Vehicles go by different names – minibus taxis in South Africa, matatus in Kenya, peseros in Mexico – but typically take the form of 16-passenger vans running along semi-flexible routes.

These privately owned systems don’t always maximise efficiency. Drivers have strong incentives to fill vehicles to capacity, which means there are very few of the empty buses often seen in the developed world. However this also means vehicles leave when they’re full, not according to a timetable. No coordination between drivers, plus no real-time data, means there’s much room for efficiency gains.

Despite these limitations, minibuses do affordably move up to 80% of the population for many emerging-market megacities. Mexico City’s 199 formal public transport lines pale compared to its almost 1400 informal routes.

Bottom-up planning means extreme flexibility in the age of coronavirus

Informal public transport networks are testament to ordinary people’s ingenuity in finding pragmatic solutions where governments lack capacity. In the coronavirus pandemic, these networks are effectively responding to the demands placed on them, often with admirable solidarity.

Without any central planning, operators have kept nearly all local routes open, albeit with fewer vehicles. Some minibus operators have even repurposed their vehicles to deliver essential goods and as well as workers. Contrast with many formal transport agencies, which have often been forced to close routes, cutting off entire neighborhoods from even essential travel.

In Mexico City, minibus drivers are coping with reduced demand by splitting up work. Drivers pick up fewer shifts – in essence, taking a pay cut rather than laying anyone off.

Drivers typically don’t own vehicles themselves. Rather, drivers lease vehicles, paying owners an agreed-upon daily rate, then keep the profits from the day's fares. With fares way down, many vehicles owners have renegotiated these lease rates to make it affordable for drivers to keep essential services operating. 

As public services shut down, the pandemic is proving informal public transport’s value as a flexible system for any occasion. Across South Africa, for example, the government has shut down or cut back subsidised public transport, including halting service on the nation’s local rail networks.

Developed-world cities can shut down metro stations and cut back bus service in part because they can count on private vehicles, taxis, or ride hailing services, to fill the gap for essential workers. For emerging market megacities, informal transport plays a similar role. With comprehensive networks and no route cuts, informal transport keeps essential services running.

Formalising inclusive design

Even in good times, informal public transport’s essential role has led to a long-latent conversation on the future of these systems. As government capacity expands, should formal systems gradually replace minibuses, or is it better to subsidise and upgrade an essential and adaptive service?

Coronavirus has brought that conversation to the fore. At WhereIsMyTransport, the company I lead, we have built out the first comprehensive maps for informal transport networks in 36 cities around the world. From that work, we have come to firmly believe that while there’s room for improvement, any effort to replace informal transport networks will do more harm than good.

A map showing Mexico City’s transport network. Informal routes are marked in pink. (Courtesy WhereIsMyTransport)

This is not only due to the huge numbers of people they move. A glance at the map of Mexico City’s transport networks shows the wide reach of informal routes, giving low-cost rides to the cities’ farthest-flung neighborhoods. This network should be the nervous system of an inclusive city, where transport and opportunity reach every resident. To be inclusive of informal transport would be to enable more equitable mobility for all.

For many megacities, some form of subsidy seems to be an inevitable part of the solution. Mexico City has responded quickly. The government will offer fuel subsidies starting in May, and is working with private creditors to postpone payments on loans used for fleet improvements. In the Philippines, the government is handing out cash payments to some drivers.

Informal transport is essential to enabling the return of economic activity. Even one-off payments during this crisis can help keep drivers and vehicle owners afloat, avoiding a rash of bankruptcies that would endanger informal transport’s ability to ramp up as economies reopen. Despite some minibus owners’ willingness to renegotiate rates with drivers, many businesses are teetering on the edge of viability.

What comes next

During this pandemic, cities are responding quickly as cars vanish from the streets. OaklandParis and Milan are among the cities already adding hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes and car-free streets for pedestrians this summer.

I propose a similarly transformative vision for emerging megacities, but with a tweak. Informal transport’s great advantage is that routes, times, and frequencies are effectively crowd-sourced. Drivers make decisions based on commuters’ needs, often in close to real time.

For complex, sprawling megacities, this approach should be preserved. It works much better than a bureaucrat drawing lines on a map ever could.

What government can do is prioritise informal public transport to make it work better. Most important is adding fast lanes for all public transport, whether it is formal or informal, which would be transformative for billions of people.

Despite fewer vehicles per route, minibus passengers in Mexico City are reporting shorter travel times. Without the city’s usual gridlock, minibuses connect neighborhoods even better than before. Faster rides give some idea of the benefits to bus-only lanes, especially in cities with extreme congestion and pollution. Formalised transit hubs could also connect minibus networks with city buses and trains. 

In South Africa, the government is looking more closely at crowding on minibuses. Vehicles may run at up to 70% capacity; both passengers and drivers must wear masks. In Mexico City, the government is requiring vehicles to be fit with trackers and cameras to improve safety, in return for permission to operate. These sorts of sensible safety oversight measures are welcome – and not just in a crisis. 

The coronavirus has shown us how critical informal public transport networks are to keeping our smallest and largest emerging market cities running. They are the unsung heroes of our emerging market cities.

Cities should learn from informal transport networks and incorporate them into the urban fabric, embracing their strengths of resilience, flexibility, and adaptability. Other informal sectors, such as street vending, are central to so many economies, and will also flourish from this collaboration.

More is possible, in other words, with what we have today. Let's find out.

Devin de Vries is the CEO and co-founder of WhereIsMyTransport, which provides mobility data for the emerging world’s largest low- and middle-income cities.


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Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

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BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.

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Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

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