100 billion trips unknown: Why we need to uncover informal public transport networks

100’s of Minibuses at a Taxi Rank spilling over onto the roads — Kampala, Uganda

You walk into the lecture hall for your final exam. It’s been four years of hard graft which has lead you to this monumental moment. You sit down and are handed your paper. You look through it, inspecting every question. You reread the questions over and over, realising 80% of it makes no sense to you. Guessing your way through the majority of the exam is going to end in disaster.

This is the equivalent of the informal public transport network in emerging cities. From Africa to Latin America, up to 80% of the networks are informal, hidden in the eyes of the city. Whether they’re known as Matatus, Jeepneys or Tap Taps, their total contribution averages out to a cool 100 billion annual rides throughout the world. Transport policies are one exam emerging cities can’t afford to fail and without knowledge of these networks, an F is on the horizon.

The birth and life of a mode

Born out of a demand for mobility, informal public transport (also known as share-taxis or paratransit) fill the service gap left by the city's lack of adequate formal modes. Commuters are gifted with a fast, affordable, pick-you-up-and-drop-you-off-anywhere-along-your-journey type transport. For budding entrepreneurs, this is an exciting opportunity. With little to no regulations, the only thing stopping you is financing a vehicle. Owners are able to rent their cars to drivers for a daily fee. With high rates of unemployment in emerging cities, becoming a driver is an attractive job opportunity. With a driver’s license and a knowledge of the roads, you can join the transport workforce. With a plus of getting to zoom around applying game theory on the daily.

Despite its value to the economy and everyday commuters, informal public transport also contributes to major concerns. Drivers face fierce competition and the need to cover rental costs results in unsafe driving practices. Speeding, overcrowding, illegal overtaking and hard braking puts commuters, pedestrians and other vehicles at risk of traffic-related injuries. It’s essentially skydiving without a safety chute - it’s exhilarating as heck but if something goes wrong… you’re in deep trouble. Every time you’re hurtled around a bend while overtaking without an accident is a prayer being answered.

It's not only commuters who are placed in jeopardy. With drivers carrying large amounts of cash they're easy targets for robbers looking to make off with a full day's earning. Sometimes criminals want more than just the cash, the vehicle itself is often a target for hijacking. This leaves commuters and drivers stranded in terror and owners deprived of their prized asset.

Overcrowded Dala Dala - Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The Current Data Landscape

Emerging cities contain dual economies, split between informal and formal sectors. The informal sector can account for up to 70% of an emerging city’s economy. Public transport cash exchanges are a large driver of the economy, yet remain unreported to the city. A lack of regulations, reporting and a centralised traffic authority leaves a data void in the transport knowledge base.

This void makes planning for the introduction or expansion of a formal public transport mode extremely risky. The introduction of formal modes, such as BRT's and Metros, have often ended in low ridership and major push-back from the informal transport sector. Planning the future of an emerging city requires the integration between the informal and formal.

The BRT network needs to integrate existing public transport, including paratransit. In cities with a substantial amount of informal transit, this is key in reducing opposition - Nguyen, Minh Hieu & Pojani, Dorina. (2018)

Unknown public transport data not only affects decision makers, it feeds into the lives of people. How do you plan a journey without knowing which route to take, how much it will cost and how long will it take? With no map, website, app, timetable or stops, finding information requires asking around until you stumble upon the wise veteran commuter who is willing to impart their knowledge to the uninitiated.

Unearthing this Data

At WhereIsMyTransport we’re shining a UV light on a map with informal public transport drawn in invisible ink. Having an on-the-ground team using our collection app to map hundreds of routes and our in-house team processing and validating the data allows us to uncover the hidden universe of the shared-taxi cosmos.

Development banks, government organisations and research firms have all employed our expertise to map over 20 cities on 3 continents. In South Africa, our data is helping amend transport policies by comparing regulatory defined routes to the reality of how the share-taxis operate. In Zanzibar, our data-driven accessibility studies are helping the World Bank identify transport nodes in need of funding. In Mexico, the Inter-American Development Bank is using our data for accessibility studies to move away from the Eurocentric public transport frameworks that can't be replicated in emerging cities.

A comparison between the formal and informal transport networks from our mapping project in Mexico

Without published information on routes, pricing and timetables the only way to gather this vital data is to roll up your sleeves and dive head first into the vibrant rhythm of how the city moves. That’s precisely what we do at WhereIsMyTransport. Join us as we wrangle the wild zig-zagging, winding, weaving informal public transport networks.



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Stories about data, mobility, and the Majority World.