Reorganizing Informal Transport in Uganda: Achieving a Multimodality that Works for All
Minibus and motorcycle taxis in Kampala, Uganda. Like many African cities, Kampala relies on this informal system to provide residents with much-needed connectivity to opportunities. Photo by Zahara Milele/WRI

Multimodal public transport in Uganda is widespread but largely an informal affair. Kampala, like many African cities, relies on this informal system – comprised largely of taxis (14-seater minibuses) and boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) – to provide much-needed connectivity to opportunities. The only system with any semblance to mass transit in Kampala is a very limited passenger rail service operating below capacity, and passengers still have to walk or use informal services for the first and last mile. In the country’s rising secondary cities, most people walk or use boda bodas to get around the central urban area, while taxis are mainly used for longer distances between towns.

Informal transport in Uganda’s cities and towns grows as an organic, market-led solution created by individual actors on the ground. In Kampala, multimodality expands when boda boda riders noticed the creation of a new minibus taxi stop (known locally as a stage) and began to create their own stages to respond to passenger demand for passengers’ last mile connections. But this system, while filling a critical mobility gap, is not without drawbacks. Kampala has become more congested, and there has also been a rise in the rates of road crashes; for example, the contribution of boda bodas to road traffic injuries rose from 24.5% in 2009 to 33.9% in 2017. And some routes that aren’t as trafficked and don’t generate as much profit are underserved as a result, leading to poor accessibility for lower-income and vulnerable groups. The intense competition among informal providers has also been a barrier for entry into the sector and for growth of more innovative services, as there is very limited room for testing out innovations.

The country needs a more deliberate approach to multimodal public transport planning to ensure all residents can access sustainable, affordable and efficient transport. With Uganda’s government now planning for improved mass transit, including bus rapid transit and the extension of passenger rail in Kampala, the time is ripe for change.

A key step in the right direction is the government’s plan to regulate the informal public transport sector by requiring all operators to belong to a company, formal association, or cooperative. In theory this should help transport operators to speak in a more unified voice and enable them to participate in public transport improvement processes. Past proposed public transport reforms have received fierce opposition from the minibus taxi sector for fear of being pushed out of their livelihoods. To ensure successful implementation of these plans, there must be meaningful participation of Uganda’s informal transport sector in the planning and integration of these services into the planned mass transit, and improvement of active travel infrastructure to ensure the safety of the current majority of travelers.  

Meaningful Participation of the Informal Sector in Transport Planning

There is already some self-organization within the informal sector in Uganda. Groups of motorcycle-taxi drivers at boda boda stages establish committees, which typically have chairmen, secretaries and treasurers. They regulate themselves, raise money for each other in times of need, and guard their area from non-stage members trying to pick up passengers. They also band together to create larger associations across neighborhoods and cities to lobby the government for favorable policies and to deal with passenger complaints. Similarly, minibus taxis create route associations to equitably distribute passengers across minibuses and support each other financially.

The government should engage with the leadership of these organizations, whether formally registered or not, to ensure transparent route allocation to different minibus associations. The evaluation criteria for route allocation should give preference to those who already serve identified routes, to make the transition more seamless.

There may be a need to incentivize and support the informal associations to strengthen their organization – for example, through waiving or discounting association registration fees. Transport associations should also be incentivized to provide services that carry positive social and environmental impacts, like integrated ticketing and use of electric vehicles. This could be through tax incentives, discounted licensing fees, or increased priority to operate on certain “lucrative routes.” There should also be careful thought on how to encourage providers to serve less lucrative routes to make sure none are underserved. Government subsidies, for example, could help minibus-taxis provide service to typically underserved neighborhoods. All this requires continuous and consistent engagement between the government and the informal providers.

Integration of Informal Services with Planned Mass Transit

Introduction of mass transit along the main arterial routes will inevitably displace taxi operators, mostly from these very lucrative arterial routes. Resistance to this displacement is expected but can be managed by building and sustaining the goodwill of these operators and working to make sure they are able to maintain their livelihoods. Travelers within Kampala still have to make connections off these arterial routes to reach their destinations in various Kampala suburbs, so connecting these last mile routes to proposed mass transit routes should be done with the informal providers likely to be displaced. Taking lessons from Rwanda and South Africa, associations of those providers should be supported in upgrading their fleet to higher-capacity vehicles; improving their operational efficiency and reliability; and even becoming legal co-owners of the mass transit system, further contributing to members’ livelihoods and reducing their economic precarity.

Infrastructure for taxis and boda boda stages at different points along the mass transit stops should also be upgraded in a bid to increase the visibility and accessibility of these services.

Improvement of Active Travel Infrastructure

Pedestrians make up a large proportion of travelers in Uganda’s cities, and those who use shared public transport are pedestrians for some part of their journey. They are also more vulnerable to road crashes. It is therefore necessary to improve pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, such as sidewalks, streetlights, sheltered waiting areas and bicycle racks, leading to and at taxi or boda boda stages and hubs.

This is very much needed in Kampala, where unsafe walking conditions and unsafe cycling lanes are a common complaint. The country’s smaller secondary cities have a bit more room to plan for a system that prioritizes active travel infrastructure for movement within city centers, and for connecting these active travel networks to multimodal transit hubs just outside the city center. A well-planned network of active travel infrastructure can improve the walking and cycling experience, and safer, smoother multi-modality helps all residents.

While informal multimodality is a significant boon to residents, government support is required to make a system that truly works for all. When the government steps in, however, it must ensure meaningful participation of the informal transport operators already providing this service in the planning and implementation of improvements. It’s a multi-step journey, and we need everyone on board to reach the destination safely.

Thomas Courtright is an Urban Mobility Intern at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Emmerentian Mbabazi is Project Specialist for Cities at WRI Africa, based in Kampala.

Anna Oursler is Urban Mobility Project Coordinator for WRI Africa, based in Kampala.

Thet Hein Tun is a Transportation Research Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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