Microtransit, meet the minibus taxi: A convergence in urban transport
In the Global South, informal transport systems are digitising and becoming more integrated with rapidly growing formal systems. In the North, cities are expanding microtransit in an effort to scale back inefficient formal systems. We may be witnessing a convergence of North and South models of urban mobility.
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I spent two months in Cape Town last summer interning at a startup (WhereIsMyTransport) that maps informal transport routes. When I describe how informal transport works to my friends back home in the U.S., they often say, “So that’s like Uber pool, right?” This reaction underscores a nascent convergence in modes of urban transport across cities in the Global North and South.
At a recent Oxford Urbanists event, Sir Paul Collier described what he considers the optimal transport network in the Global South: a central city served by high-occupancy Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), with informal vehicles providing demand-responsive “feeder” service in peripheral urban areas. The challenge for lower-income cities is to scale-up BRT and move informal routes away from the city centre. This often involves a net decrease in the size of the informal sector, as seen in Cape Town. There, the municipal government offered minibus taxi drivers the option to become BRT bus drivers when it phased in the MyCiti BRT system in 2011 (Shalecamp & McLachlan 2016).
Many U.S. cities have been approaching a similar model from the opposite end of the formal-to-informal spectrum. With too little on-demand service and too much fixed-route service – the latter very costly – cities have been experimenting with more decentralised options as a way to enhance mobility and save money. Philadelphia, Oakland, and Tampa, for instance, have tried offering Uber subsidies as a replacement for financially infeasible bus routes on the urban periphery.
Though their success remains to be seen, brewing U.S. “microtransit” initiatives bear an even closer resemblance to informal transport. Under this model, municipal governments formally partner with on-demand rideshare companies like Via, Chariot, Uber, or Lyft. Los Angeles began accepting proposals for a pilot last year. Arlington, Texas recently penned a deal that would make it the first U.S. city to offer public transport exclusively by microtransit. A 2015 pilot in Kansas City, Missouri, failed due to below-target ridership.
It seems easy to imagine a Capetonian, upon hearing about microtransit, saying “Oh so that’s just like a minibus taxi, right?”
Trends in the developing world could further hasten the convergence between transport systems in the Global North and South. For instance, efforts to digitise route, fare, and tracking information could make the trip-planning experience for informal modes virtually identical to taking an Uber pool. Startups like WhereIsMyTransport and AftaRobot (just to name two South African examples) will enable riders to plan their journeys with precision while allowing vehicle owners to track and optimise the use of their fleets. Meanwhile, city governments, such as Cape Town and Kigali, are digitising and unifying payment methods across modes.
Global South city governments could support innovation through subsidy programs that are conditional on drivers’ behaviour. Doing so might allow them to solve investment coordination problems while simultaneously reducing negative aspects sometimes associated with the informal sector, such as unsafe driving and violent competition. New York City’s Taxi Improvement Fund, which aimed to increase vehicle accessibility, is one example of such a scheme. A taxi improvement program launched by Cape Town in 2000 largely failed; the taxi industry called it woefully inadequate for meaningful capital upgrades (Shalecamp & McLachlan 2016). But a more generous subsidy, possibly conditional on good driving records, could drastically improve both drivers’ and riders’ transport experience.
Urbanists would do well to consider what the North and South can learn from each other in improving urban transport. For if we are talking a global convergence on mobility systems, the question seems to be not “if,” but “when."
Paul Healy is an M.Sc. candidate in Economics for Development at the University of Oxford. Prior to Oxford, Paul worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co. and as an intern at WhereIsMyTransport, a transport startup in Cape Town. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Georgetown University.
Shalecamp, H. & McLachlan, N. (2016): “Minibus-taxi operator reforms, engagement and attitudes in Cape Town,” Book chapter in Paratransit in African Cities (ed. Behrens et al.), Routledge.