Urban Mobility and Access to Transportation in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.


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This month Meeting of the Minds Senior Writer Kate O’Brien sat down for a conversation by phone with Devanne Brookins, PhD, about the Transforming Urban Transport – The Role of Political Leadership (TUT-POL) Sub-Saharan Africa project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, for which she served as Research Coordinator. Currently a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at Princeton, Brookins’ research interests are centered on African cities at the intersection of urban development, governance and land, interrogating questions of how the urban is produced in Africa, and how development and decision-making contribute to the production of inequality.

What is the TUT-POL project, and how did you get involved?

When I came onto the project, the first phase of the TUT-POL had just been completed. VREF was interested in the Sub-Saharan African (SSA) context. As such, I was recruited for an extension of the project because of my expertise on urban development and governance in African cities. The project was meant to be exploratory research that allowed VREF to re-frame its approach to the region. Previously, the Foundation had worked with Centers for Excellence in Kenya and South Africa, and were considering a more integrated approach to impact both research and policymaking. We used the original TUT-POL findings as a foundation for the ongoing work to explore if and how those findings apply in the Sub-Saharan African context. What we learned can be found in our October 2019 report.

Why is the TUT-POL work in SSA so important?

First, the project’s focus on this region is unusual. Much of the research on transport issues has been focused on Latin America, particularly the Colombian experience; on Europe, given its increasing emphasis on climate change and sustainability; and on Asia, given the urban transformations taking place across China and India.

Second, we went in with the intention of developing a comparative analysis of three African cities that were distinct in a number of ways. Most empirical studies focus on just one case. Because there’s so much diversity across Africa, along every domain; politically, socially, and in terms of various infrastructures, one case is not representative of all cities on the continent. We also developed case notes for other cities and angles we found interesting as a way for others to look at core urban transport interventions in several different places.

Finally, the focus on governance; that is, politics and the role that institutions play, is unique and innovative. As I started to get into the background for this work, I found that a lot of the writing was heavily focused on technical and infrastructural issues, but didn’t focus on governance, leadership, or what it takes to facilitate transformative change. This question of governance in urban transport and mobility was strongly established in the original TUT-POL project. The expansion of this research into Sub-Saharan Africa allowed us to get an inside look at differences in the governance of urban transport in this region. It enabled us to explore what works and what doesn’t and helps explain why certain places are experiencing challenges and hopefully also shed light on how to solve those challenges.

With each of these case studies, we weren’t just looking at an intervention itself. We were able to get an inside look at the actors and the problems involved. It helped us see why and how some of the projects didn’t go as expected. It really is about how transport interventions get done.

What key findings from the TUT-POL pilot phase seem most promising for promoting transformative transport policy changes in SSA?

First, there’s the need to define the role of public sector agencies. Two of the three cases we looked at, in Ghana and Tanzania, were BRT-focused projects, although they were approached in different ways. Rwanda wasn’t so much one urban transport intervention but more an incremental introduction of regulatory reforms to change the transport sector. In each case, you could see that a clear definition of the role of the public sector agency was needed.

The most effective intervention we saw was in Rwanda, and that was the place where the role of the public sector was clearly defined. It seems rather obvious because when we think of transport we think of “public” transport. But, in the African context, transport is mostly privatized, and so most transport options are those offered by the private actors in the paratransit sector. The idea that these private entities are essentially offering a public transport service suggests a clear definition of the role of public agencies is essential.

Second, there’s the importance of coordination across scales and actors. One of the things that we found, particularly in the Ghana and Tanzania cases, was the importance of this coordination. Some places have so many public sector agencies that are engaged in decision-making for urban  transport that coordination gets incredibly complicated.

Finally, on a related note, there’s the need for the strategic engagement and integration of that paratransit sector. One of the outlying factors involved in the SSA context is the role of external actors. A lot of transport projects are actually initiated by partnerships with the World Bank or other international actors, which have a larger vision for how urban transport should be organized. So, what is the role of external actors in shaping how the change occurs and how local institutions and actors are integrated into these decisions? This is a significant factor with many actors, spanning many levels, which means coordination is really key.

What challenges and opportunities do you see or anticipate in applying TUT-POL insights to SSA?

The outsized role of external actors, in some cases, is problematic when considering institutional setups that may be legible to them, but are not necessarily be legible, or useful, to local actors. For instance, suggesting the creation of an organization or taking the authority of one agency and giving it to another creates new problems. Localized autonomy to make decisions, determine the organizational set up, and manage reforms is critical.

Also, local context matters. Domestic actors need to be able to articulate their vision for what their urban transport should look like, and work with those external actors to identify a menu of options. For example, BRT cannot be the only best practice, particularly because of the differences in access to finance and infrastructure requirements from Latin American contexts. Some of the investments will need to be done incrementally and over time. In working with international organizations, key questions should be what is the menu of options and how can long-term visions be created for where we want to go and how we will get there.

What inspiring examples of political leadership and governance have you seen that have enabled successful implementation of revolutionary transportation policy in SSA cities? 

I have seen two interesting examples of decisive and proactive leadership across the region. First, Kigali, Rwanda has been effective in terms of making changes happen over time. They started in the 2000s, with their work really taking off in 2013. Their urban transport reforms are integrated into a much broader urbanization vision for the city and the country. They first made a series of incremental changes through their regulatory agency, which is where the rules governing bus and paratransit (i.e., scooters and motorbikes, given the hilly landscape) are made. Rwanda has established a vision for transformation that anticipates urban growth over the coming ten to twenty years. They are thinking about how they want their city to develop, how to manage that development, and being careful to avoid and learn from the challenges other cities have run into.

The other example is Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which has been taking a proactive approach to urban transport and mobility. They are also focused on urban development, not just in their capital city, but more broadly across many cities. They have been proactive in going out and seeking international partners to help them think through how to approach urban transport and have been open to experimentation. They recently introduced light rail into their urban transport options, though technology transfer and training is still needed.

Both of these examples raise questions about the effectiveness of more centralized governments versus more decentralized and democratic places. While more centralized governments might be able to push through reforms, is this the best approach? Or is there a means to deal with the messiness of more decentralized and democratic spaces, such as Ghana, that struggle to coordinate among so many politically engaged actors?

What excites you most about this work, and where is it headed from here?

What we’ve seen in urban transport interventions, and urban development more generally, is that while there are many interesting technical solutions to the challenges of urban transport,  governance matters. We know this. Understanding local contexts and patterns is also important. Entering any new situation requires gaining a nuanced understanding first. That is part of the role of research. Our work is important because researchers are interested in diving deep into these issues, to help cities grapple with challenges and harness opportunities.

I’m so pleased that the VREF sees value in exploring these issues of politics and governance, as well as mobility and access, across Sub-Saharan Africa. They’ve developed a niche in terms of their contribution to the field and to the debate about urban transport and mobility. Most recognize the importance of sustainability, but these questions of mobility and access especially speak to places where the infrastructure isn’t yet sufficient for the need, particularly for poor and marginalized groups. The question of how we can build sustainable infrastructure that actually meets the needs of these communities, is critical to answer as African cities continue to grow.

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