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.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.