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On red soil

Urban transport dreams

African cities are walking cities, but are they walkable?

‘No’ was the immediate answer that came to my mind, but the title of the Walkonomics/This Big City blog post made me curious enough to read more. According to it, walking is “the most popular form of transport” in urban Africa. Realistic enough, there are millions of people and a road can only fit so many cars.

My little example in this context is obviously pathetic, as many people walk much longer distances with heavier burdens every day, but, I’ll share it with you anyway. Sometimes in Dar es Salaam, when I wanted to save the 2000TSh (€1, one can get very conscious about money use) it cost with a bajaj to get from home to the big shopping centre to buy particular groceries, I instead walked the 3.5 kilometres there. Sounds meager, but when the sun shines directly from above you with a +35 degree heat radiance and the cars that drive past only leave a cloud of roadside dust in your face/bucket of waste water on your feet (after rains), even the 3.5 kilometres can be quite a pain. Here’s the approximate and simplified route:

But “walking isn’t only difficult, it’s also very dangerous” given the high number of deadly accidents involving pedestrians in big African cities. So far so true with the blog post. There were however a few comments that struck an odd chord.

“As a result [of walking], the current CO2 emissions of these cities are incredibly low, with the vast majority of people either walking or using ‘ad-hoc’ public transport such as the small blue and white minibuses of Addis Ababa.”

Firstly, just because many people walk, doesn’t mean CO2 emissions are negligent. Or is there a study to base this ‘incredibly low’ figure on? To take the example of Dar es Salaam, while most street-sides are lined with people walking, cars fill up any other space they can (almost) fit in. And the cars are often old, in need of repair and spitting fumes greyer than your grandmama’s hair. Without being a scientist it’s quite obvious that the air is anything but clean and un-congested along the cityroads.

Secondly, while the small blue and white minibuses in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia might be called ‘ad hoc’ public transport, I would argue the daladalas in Dar es Salaam are not impromptu. Sure, they don’t have fixed timetables, but many of those living on the outskirts of the city rely on this specific public transport daily to get to work in the city centre, which may take up to 3 hours of travelling either way including changes at bigger daladala junctions. And for many it’s not ‘ad hoc’ in the sense that if one of the buses happens to drive by you jump on it; despite the crampiness and uncomfortableness of a ride, it can be a privilege for many. With fixed prices for different distances, it can be a matter of household budgeting how many times you can afford to step in the shabby Toyota Hiace per day. And yes, while the whole daladala ecosystem straddles on the peripheral ‘grey’ economy side of things, it’s a relied upon business and source of income for those owning the minibuses, those driving it (sometimes the same person), and those employed as general destination shouters/fare collectors.

The Walkonomics post continues with a brief introduction to a recently initiated UN-HABITAT $3 million – project ‘Sustainable Transport in East African Cities‘ (specifically Addis Ababa, Kampala and Nairobi), aimed at improving walkability, bikeability and public transport in these cities.

“The project is built around creating Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRT) in each city, […which] are low cost and efficient bus systems with dedicated ‘busways’ and high quality enclosed stations.  They provide the usability and capacity of other Mass Rapid Transit (like trams or subways) but at a fraction of the cost, making BRT an ideal option for developing cities.”

Sounds good? I hope it will be. But without having gone through the project specifics and with the risk of sounding prematurely pessimistic, it is much easier said than done and not unambiguously ideal either. Projects may sound good on paper, but they are rarely straightforward to implement in developing countries.

While in Dar es Salaam, I heard a lot of talk about a similar rapid transit system taking form there. The whole plan was however causing a lot of controversy since building exclusive lanes for bigger formal buses to enter the city centre also means an end to daladalas cashing in on the big city centre money, and a disappearing of livelihoods of the many drivers and busboys. Additional lanes are necessary for efficiency and no doubt any commuter/driver in Dar es Salaam wishes the traffic to be smoother and less time-consuming, but building the new lanes won’t be easy either. The city is tightly built in many places and any expansion of the road will most probably mean destruction of roadside houses. Alternative, and equally attractive (the shorter distance to city centre the better), housing should then be secured for the evicted tenants.

“It’s happening now”, were the words on everyone’s mouths in early January 2011, when huge red crosses started appearing on all the billboards along Old Bagamoyo Road (the long, big stretch of road on my route in the above map). “They are widening the road”.

From the day the red crosses appeared to the day I left in May 2011, nothing happened however. As I now googled for more information, I found this site detailing the DART (Dar es Salaam Rapid Transit) project, announced by the city council – in 2003. The World Bank had provided an initial $1 million for design and planning – in 2005. Construction estimated to start – 2007. President Kikwete finally inaugurated the project in August last year, and the City Council has been accused of delaying the project but denied the claims. Progress to date? Red crosses on billboards.

So, best of luck to you, UN-HABITAT, and may all East African urban transport dreams come true.



2 thoughts on “Urban transport dreams

  1. You could have used a shorter route instead of following the road like a car….
    I lived in that area (indicated on the map) and walked many times to shopper Plaza…
    Pole sana

    Posted by shemweta | 26 October 2011, 16:28

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