PHOTOS: The many faces of transport in Africa's cities and the story they tell about a continent

Booming urbanisation and planning problems have brought about some innovative ways to get around.

LIKE cities all over the world, Africa’s capitals and towns have an impressive variety of ways to get around if you don’t own a car or bicycle. Some of these  transport systems are particularly unique and innovative, cropping up to cope with issues of congestion, the lay-out of the city or booming urbanisation.

Buses are a staple in most cities – but these have been shrinking in size over time, with minibuses (carrying 8-25 passengers) more prevalent than large buses, although some countries are now pushing legislation to force back the bigger carriers.

A reflection of the difficulty in turning profits since smaller buses making about twice as many trips and are easier to manoeuvre through areas of high congestion. According to research by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, the vast majority, about 80%, of public transport trips in Nairobi are carried by unscheduled, shared public transport minibuses.

Nairobi’s “matatus” carry approximately three quarters of Nairobi’s passengers and constitute 36% of traffic volume. Estimates range between matatu capturing 70% and 80% of the public transport market, or 700,000 passengers per day.

This high volume can be seen across the board. The Ministry of Transport in Harare, Zimbabwe, estimates that the minibus fleet there accounted for 90%. There are an estimated 20,000–25,000 matatus in Kampala, Uganda, double the number of officially registered matatus. They have been estimated to employ between 40,000 and 60,000 people.

Minibuses tend to have colloquial names, such as the matatu in Nairobi, the tro-tro in Accra, danfo in Lagos and sotrama in Bamako.

Another mode of transport, born out of a surge in people moving to cities, poor planning which resulted in road congestion, poor traffic flow management and a lack of parking are motorbike taxis. The boom in boda bodas has been very noticeable in Douala, Lagos, Nairobi and Kampala, growing rapidly in the past few years.

In Kampala for example, about 80,000 boda-boda (as they are known in East Africa) serve as the main form of transport and there is estimated to be at least 800,000 trips taken daily. In many cities, like Cotonou in Benin, they can even prove to be a cheaper and faster form of transport than buses.

Increasingly popular and available are the usually three-wheeled cabin cycle, commonly known as the tuk tuk or “bajaj” – after the Indian manufacturer. Bajaj is the largest manufacturer of three-wheelers in the world, turning out about 500,000 per year, half of which stay in the Indian market and half of which are exported overseas.

These three wheelers are highly popular in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and in all major Ethiopian hubs. Trips in a tuk tuk provide more safety than a motorbike and the opportunity to share fares with other passengers.

These are nonetheless very informal ways of getting around. There are also plenty of formal travel options – though these are largely confined to South Africa and North Africa.

In South Africa there are notable urban rail services in the Gauteng metropolitan area that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria. 

In Cape Town, suburban commuter rail service remains the dominant mode in the city, supplying some 54% of the daily public transport passenger market.

There are also trams in Africa, though these are found only in the Maghreb region. Egypt’s Alexandria tramway network for example is the oldest one still running in Africa.  It consists of 38 stations. It is one of only 3 non-heritage tram systems in the world that use double-deck cars.

Then there are more unique and unusual ways of getting around cities, adapted to the environment and what was available.

In Nigeria for example, canoes are the predominant form of transport in Makoko, a floating settlement in Lagos.

About 250,000 people live in this settlement and each household has a canoe, so hundreds are anchored on the lagoon. The canoes are also used by traders who don’t have shops but will instead spend the day paddling around the community selling their goods.

In Madagascar, a feature of all urban areas are rickshaws, commonly called pousse pousse – meaning “push push”.

This nifty form of transport is typically pulled by a person and the fares can be incredibly low.

Despite all these options, walking continues to come out trumps in many of Africa’s cities. The UN-HABITAT study found that in Nairobi just under half of all trips are made on foot, 46% of people walk in Dar es Salaam, and 42% walk in Harare. Among working adults in Nairobi, just over 65% walk to work whilst among school-going children, 96% walk.

Studies conducted in African cities during 1992–2002 indicate that walking accounts for 70% in Addis Ababa, and 63% in Harare.

As certain African economies boom, cities develop and markets change, it will be interesting to watch how these various choices, and the decision-making processes, evolve over the next 10 years. 


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