Integrating Formal and Informal Transportation Services into a Hybrid Network

By Christina Olsen

Christina Olsen is Program Director at Meeting of the Minds and has been working with the organization for more than 2 years. For the past 15 years, Christina Olsen has provided research, advisory services, project management, planning, and general management to a wide range of sustainability organizations and projects around the world. She holds a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard and a BA in Environmental Studies – with a joint major in Anthropology – from the University of Victoria.

This interview series is made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations. Each month we feature a leading thinker from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.

Meeting of the Minds talked with Roger Behrens about planning for hybrid urban transportation systems that include both formal and informal transit services. Roger is an Associate Professor in the University of Cape Town’s Department of Civil Engineering. He is Director of the Centre for Transport Studies, and of the African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport (ACET). He graduated with a Master Degree in City and Regional Planning from UCT in 1991, and with a PhD degree in 2002. His current research activities relate to: the integration and improvement of paratransit services; the dynamics and pace of changing travel behavior; the use of transport systems by pedestrians; and the urban form prerequisites for viable public transport networks. 

What are some of the key issues you are working on?

Our center of excellence is a collaboration between the University of Cape Town and the universities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Our two main research foci are non-motorized transport and public transport, particularly paratransit which are the informal transit services dominant in sub-Saharan African cities.

In African cities, particularly in South Africa, there was either an explicit or an implicit policy objective of replacing existing informal paratransit services with formalized contracted scheduled “trunk and feeder” bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. Our concern was that this was very ambitious and quite unlikely to be achieved. So initially a lot of our research was questioning that policy objective.

From case study research we concluded that cities that tried to introduce scheduled formalized mass public transport services in the form of BRT were likely to end up with hybrid public transport networks. ‘Hybrid’ in that the incumbent unscheduled paratransit operators would continue to exist along with the new formal scheduled services. So the question that we framed at the time was: how do we begin to plan for this type of hybridity so that each set of services complements the other?

Getting formal and informal transit services working together effectively sounds critical for a successful city transportation system. How did you try to figure it out?

We’ve had two main projects. The first asks what can be done to improve quality of service in a hybrid system. Our focus was on the inter-city matatu services in Kenya that achieved a significant improvement in quality and coordination. We found that matatu operators had voluntarily formed themselves into cooperatives, which had begun to address the two main problems generating poor quality of service. One was a tendency for operators not to regard vehicle depreciation as an operating cost and not set aside capital for it on a regular basis. If the operator doesn’t have a down payment for a new vehicle when needed, the vehicle stays in service longer than it should. This results in unsafe vehicles on the road, accounting for at least some of the paratransit crashes and poor safety record.

The other problem was how drivers were remunerated. A typical owner purchases one or more vehicles as a bit of an investment on the side to supplement their income from another job, such as a teacher or civil servant. They then hire employees to drive the vehicles. Drivers are commonly paid through a target system whereby the vehicle owner requires a certain agreed amount of cash by the end of the day with any money leftover being kept by the driver. So there’s an inbuilt incentive for drivers to drive as aggressively as possible to make as many trips as they can in the peak periods of demand.

The cooperative structure overcame these problems by requiring its members to make a daily contribution “share payment”. Once a certain contribution has been reached, the member qualifies for loans that they can draw upon to either repair or replace a vehicle when needed. The cooperatives also removed the target system and began to remunerate drivers on a kind of salaried system whereby they no longer have to drive very aggressively and competitively. The vehicle management function was ceded to cooperative staff, enabling them to monitor vehicle use to check that the driver is doing what he or she is paid to do.

Cooperatives sound like a promising way to tackle service quality issues. What else did you explore?

Our second project looked to better understand the operational challenges with public transport network hybridity. One of the best ways of organizing both formal and informal operators is through a trunk-feeder network. This means that the main high demand routes are served by larger vehicles – either BRT, rail, or large buses – that are provided or contracted by the regulatory authority. Shorter distributor services connect the trunk lines to neighborhoods and are provided by unscheduled smaller mini-bus vehicles.

We analyzed arrival and departure profiles of both services and found that the minibus taxi operators were very demand responsive. As passenger demand increased at the interchange area, the minibus taxi operators responded with increased frequency of service. However, they stopped operating outside of the peak periods. This was partly because there weren’t enough passengers to make the service viable. Also, many drivers didn’t want to work in the evening after a day working on the target system when they’re then flush with cash, making them easy targets for crime.

There are public sector interventions that might increase coordination in service, such as improving security at public transport interchanges or moving to a cashless fare collection system. Cashless systems also allow for financial incentives to encourage drivers to bring passengers to and from the BRT system, as is done in Quito, Ecuador. We are now exploring stated choice modeling whereby we present different scenarios to drivers and vehicle owners and find out which ones would lead them to change their operations to create a more complementary hybrid transportation network.

We’ve been developing a trust relationship with a particular association and they understand that they might benefit from the results of our research. This might not be representative of all associations though. So in the next phases of research we will replicate the choice experiments and analysis to other cases in the city so we can be more confident which solutions we’ve developed might be transferable to other parts of the network.

Are there any lessons that could transfer to other cities or regions?

Our view at this point is that the conclusions we’ve drawn in South Africa around the inevitability of hybrid systems, where the formal and the informal need to coexist, are valid in other parts of Africa, at least other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. So we strongly suspect that the work we’re doing in Cape Town will prove to be very relevant and potentially useful for local policy discourse elsewhere.

There has also been interest from researchers in Europe and North America in how the unscheduled services of African cities might complement scheduled mass transit. There are cities in more developed countries that have informal paratransit services, such as the dollar vans of New York, or demand responsive transit systems that don’t operate on a scheduled fixed route and use technologies to respond to real time passenger demands. So there’s been an interest in our context and lessons that might transfer to how those kinds of paratransit type systems might be developed.

Has anything come out of your research that you weren’t expecting?

The minibus taxi and matatu services generally have quite a bad reputation amongst regulators and the public, especially the middle class public. These services are often perceived to be very unsafe and cause of a lot of the chaos observed on the roads. As I get into understanding individual operators and their cases, two things have struck me. The one is that this is not a homogeneous sector; there’s actually a wide spectrum of operators out there. Some are operating in survival mode, doing whatever needs to be done every day to eke out a living. Very often what needs to be done is illegal and out of the bounds of the regulatory system and traffic laws. But equally, there are other operators at the other end of the spectrum that are in fact very often highly compliant with regulations and are developing quite sophisticated businesses.

The second thing that impressed me with the operators at this other end of the spectrum is how rational their choices are in how their businesses are run. They understand the system that they operate in very well, have enormous knowledge of the cities in which they work, and understand the patterns of demand that they serve. They are very valuable stakeholders in the public transport planning process and have a lot to contribute to improve the public transport system in any given city.

What’s next on the horizon for ACET?

There are two areas of research coming next. In Kenya we first focused on the intercity services connecting Nairobi with outlying settlements and towns. The next phase we are hoping to pursue is to look at other parts of the country and look at some of the more rural services that are being offered. We’re also quite interested in speaking to passengers to understand their perceptions on the degree to which innovations in how matatus are operated have improved quality of service. We’ll get their views on changes in the driver remuneration model, introduction of vehicle tracking systems, and implementation of cashless fare collection systems.

We’re also trying to get funding to develop a “town and gown” relationship through what we’re calling an embedded PhD research program. That would enable us to offer scholarships to have PhD researchers work half time with us at the university and half time embedded within the regulatory authority working on research topics of mutual interest. The researchers benefit from the access to the data collected and gain insight into how real projects are unfolding. The regulatory authority gets a hand in forming and directing PhD research towards research outcomes they are interested in potentially implementing. Everybody benefits.


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