How Are New Informal Transit Routes Formed?
Tamara Kerzhner, City & Regional Planning
In 2015, the chairman of a Kampala administrative zone about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the city’s downtown addressed a hand-written note to the chairman of a minibus taxi association. He humbly requested the group of drivers expand its services into the neighborhood, citing both commercial demand and equity, arguing poor transport to and from the rest of the city and to a newly opened health center was “leaving us behind.”
After several months of exchanges with the Kampala Central City Authority, including an initial denial, a further appeal from both the administrative zone and the association, and finally authorization, service expansion began. A new route to the neighborhood was launched and saw immediate success, with two dozen 14-seater minibuses serving hundreds of passengers on the first day.
Not all expansions of privately operated transport systems across African cities have such an auspicious or easily identifiable start. Referred to as “paratransit” or “informal” transport, the ubiquitous minibuses and taxis operating around the continent and elsewhere in the world are often described as chaotic or disorganized. Their operations, which provide the main transport option for hundreds of millions of people daily, are often characterized as somehow miraculous or organic – reflecting a dismissive colonial language, even if frequently coated in a cloying romantic positivity.
In fact, as the experience of that neighborhood in Kampala shows, the informal transport sector is often actively planned, highly organized and subject to complex regulation, albeit in ways not easily perceptible to top-down planning authorities. This includes extensive deliberations, tradeoffs, assessments, and investments of time, cost and risk in the development or extension of new routes.
With support from the Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship and the Weiss Fund for Development Economics, I investigated how informal transit routes formed and changed, and to whose benefit, in Nairobi, Kenya; Lilongwe, Malawi; and Kampala, Uganda. In examining these three cities – each with distinct informal transport sectors – the role of organizations and workers’ power came to the forefront in explaining spatial operating patterns.
Minibuses arranged into stages at Old Taxi Park, Kampala. 2022; photo by Tamara Kerzhner.