Lessons in Public Transport Equity from the Majority World

In a recent article for Dataversity, our CEO Devin de Vries argues that the common model of informal public transport in the Majority World can improve mobility in developed-market cities as well.

The Majority World is an alternative term for developing countries. We like it here at WhereIsMyTransport because it reveals an important truth: Most urban-dwellers live in places that are very different from London, Paris, or New York. Some 3.2 billion people live in Majority-World cities — places like Rio de Janeiro, Kampala, and Bangkok.

In the Majority World, public transport is mostly informal. Private operators run 12- to 16-seater vans on semi-flexible routes that criss-cross the city, overlapping and extending the formal public transport network. Mexico City’s informal route network is over ten times the size of its formal bus and metro options.

Camion in Mexico City

Developed-world cities used to boast similar networks. In the US, “jitney vans” burst onto the scene about a century ago, rapidly gaining market share for urban transport. A coordinated effort from the tram and taxicab companies to pass regulations to kill the industry stopped their rise.

We think that loosening restrictions can mean more jitneys, which would be good for public transport equity for developed-market cities. Van routes form bottom-up, organic networks that respond to demand on the street, with no need for top-down planning. The most frequent formal public transport lines are geared to bringing commuters to downtown business districts. This can leave low-income communities in the lurch.

In the few developed-market cities, such as New York and Miami, that maintain some informal public transport, vans serve precisely these markets: low-income areas outside the urban core.

Informal networks will not take over public transport in developed-market cities, not should they. But their services can meaningfully improve people’s lives, especially in communities that public transport leaves out today.

Public Vans in Bangkok share the road with taxis and private vehicles

WhereIsMyTransport’s work digitalising similar networks in the Majority World shows that informal transport also benefits cities by revealing new information. Precisely because the networks form from organic demand, they can unveil travel patterns and community relationships that urban planners and business never knew existed.

Land-use planning, new businesses, or even formal transit development, can benefit from better understanding of these pre-existing patterns.

At WhereIsMyTransport, we believe that our work is about more than mobility data production from the Majority World. We help commuters and businesses develop a better understanding of the mobility networks they depend on, and the places where they live and work.

Stories about data, mobility and Majority-World megacities.