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.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.