Informal with the Formal

I pull my bag onto my back and start down the dirt road, zigzagging around the jutting rocks, littered trash, and permanent puddles on the impenetrably compacted path. I turn my shoulder to take one last look at the turquoise waters of Nungwi, Zanzibar, a paradise so removed from the poverty of the village. As I do, I see Machu coming after me. He waves me back. Just make sure to get on one that looks like a bus, not those others ones. I promise I will. He smiles and waves good-bye, confident he has done his part to get me across Zanzibar safely. I hike up my pack and continue to walk towards the village center.

In about 15 minutes, under the directions of Machu, as well as a few other helpful local men, I have reached my somewhat vague destination. A few different vehicles are parked around this intersection and the neighboring field. Some are small buses, some more like vans, and others wall-less trucks. All are dala dalas, or minibus taxis. Heeding Machu’s warning, I pick the safest looking minibus headed for Stone Town, the main city on the island of Zanzibar.

I board the bus, immediately drawing attention to my skin color and obvious foreign air. Most tourists arrange private taxis or utilize the shared taxis transporting passengers from one hotel to another (at a much higher cost). A man immediately gets up and helps me to a window seat. I am grateful, as the wind will be a relief from the heat. When the bus is full, we depart. Between here and Stone Town, there are no established stops, no printed maps, no timed schedules. If someone wants to get off, they will be allowed to get off. If someone wants to get on, they will be allowed to get on. The number of seats is irrelevant – there is always room for one more. We pass other dala dalas (the truck-like ones I was told to avoid) with up to four men standing on the outer edge and holding on to the back of the truck.

These informal systems – paratransit – remain the backbone of transportation for many African cities. The have responded to the needs of the people when the government did not, or could not, by providing cheap and accessible means of getting around. Safety is another question. Vehicles are old; drivers are fast; ridership per vehicle is above capacity. While it may be tempting to suggest they should be replaced with official networks of transportation, this may not be a realistic prospect. In Cape Town, this seems to be a growing realization.

Prior to the 2010 World Cup, cities in South Africa relied almost completely on private transportation – minibus taxis, bus companies and/or commuter rail. Government public transportation was near nonexistent. Apartheid spatial planning created communities separated by long distances, thus creating a great challenge to, and necessity for, public transit connections between them. The prospect of hosting such an enormous event provided the perfect impetus, and funding, for the development of these.

In light of the success of bus rapid transit (BRT) – creating dedicated bus lanes to avoid road congestion – in Latin America, the idea was to replace existing paratransit with BRT. In Cape Town, the resultant bus rapid transit system is called MyCiti. While effective for the area it serves, this is only a small portion of the city with future expansion in mind. Expenses have been much greater than expected, and there is a real possibility that the government will spend all of its resources on a few BRT lines, thereby neglecting the majority of the population.  Total replacement of paratransit seems a goal far out of reach.  Signs point to a more realistic compromise – a hybrid system utilizing the formal and informal transportation networks – if policymakers accept that paratransit will not disappear.

As other African cities prepare for their own public transportation endeavors, such as Dar es Salaam’s introduction of BRT in a dala dala dominated city, policymakers and government officials should consider a more open and integrated approach. By allowing the minibus taxis to continue to exist, they can become a feeder/distributor network to support the primary BRT arteries – a task for which the smaller vehicles are well suited – and reduce the necessary investment.

Paratransit may not be the most photogenic system, or the safest, but it successfully serves the majority population in many African cities. It developed in response to real needs of people, and its place and purpose in pubic transportation should not be overlooked. Reform, rather than replacement, is the more logical ideal.

In the meantime, I will be satisfied with paratransit’s place in my budget. An hour and a half and one dollar later, I am in Stone Town.