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Fascinating stuff. It seems that when the cost of fuel dominates the cost of labor, there is a strong incentive against strictly scheduled service. I have not been to Zambia but I have noticed similar behavior in the NYC-area jitney drivers.

I wonder if there are any parallels between Zambia and early 19th century transit in Western cities. The fact that horsecars and electric streetcars had to run on rails might preclude some of the shenanigans described in this article.


I only spent 1 month in Lusaka but I can attest to the thin margins being a perilous problem. Most of the minibus rides I went on were fine and safe (if not slightly uncomfortable, being that I'm 6'4), but while I was there I heard of a wreck in a smaller town where an overloaded minibus flipped in a ditch killing many of the passengers.

The saddest part about Lusaka is that despite Zambia being one of the poorest countries in the world, the city is a very expensive place even by regular standards. I recall multiple trips where someone at one of the terminals would simply put a suitcase or a bag on the bus with a label on it for the person that was supposed to grab it when it reached another stop.


Sounds very similar to the privately owned Public Service Vehicles (PSVs as they're known) in Barbados. A few main differences exist:

1. Fares are fixed at US$1 for any destination (no free transfers)
2. The average income is high enough to allow many people to own vehicles (currently there is 1 vehicle for every 2.5 residents)
3. There is a Transport Authority that limits the number of licences granted for particular routes, which you would expect to lower competition from the free market level

What I notice in Barbados is that in addition to the antics of the PSVs as they try to maximize revenue per journey, there is a lot of friction with the many other privately owned vehicles leading to angry confrontations. This is the greater area of contention rather than arguments between PSV operators as described in this Zambia case.

I have the same question as Matthew regarding whether other cities went through something like this in the past. It seems that in many developing cities today once people earn enough money to afford it, they just buy a car. I'm not sure there's as much political capital to gain by fixing public transport, especially when the "dream" is for everyone to own a car. Maybe this is a new dimension that modern cities didn't have to deal with during their development?

James Bunting

I suppose that the minibuses have gone someway to reducing the enormous number of people who simply had to walk to work. I spent some time in Zambia working for a subsidiary of one of the parastatals in the late 1980s. The shortage of foreign exchange meant that things like vehicle maintenance was rare, with repairs at best described as creative. Both in Lusaka and up in the Copperbelt you would see many young women in office suits walking long distances because there was virtually no public transport then.

Just before my departure back to England two English double deck buses appeared, a London one from the early 1950s and a newer one from the West Country which I had worked on when I had a bus conductor summer job in 1973. I don't know how long they lasted as none of my contacts seemed to know anything about them. Because my work involved hotels I always stayed in the city centre, close to the office I was working at. I never had the chance to try any public transport myself.


Again, please excuse me, I'm speaking as someone almost totally ignorant about Lusaka beyond what I can see from satellite:

Why is it so sprawling? In the past, the need to walk would have caused dense population centers to arise. That doesn't seem to be the case here.

Is this another example of foreigners coming in and "helping" by building large roads and forcing suburban-patterns of development?

And it seems like there are several preserved/in-use railroad rights-of-way for future consideration.

Shaun Cleaver


Thank you for those reflections; I can provide the following insight:

1) Sprawling Lusaka
Although the “aid establishment” does influence infrastructure development, it is not the dominant force in this case. In fact, by almost any perspective Lusaka has too few roads. A more informative way to explain the city’s urban form is to consider the very different realities and option of two populations which drive its development: the rich and the poor.

Affluent neighbourhoods in Lusaka look quite similar to post-war suburbia in the West, except that the plots are surrounded by high walls with electric fences or broken glass on the top (although some developments, like New Roma, are large gated communities). The prominent residents of these areas conduct their affairs in the new shopping malls and business parks and rely exclusively on their private vehicles for mobility.

There are at least two reasons for sprawl among the poor. One is that many of the jobs (as domestic workers) are in the homes of the affluent, making it less surprising that most rich neighbourhoods are flanked by poor ones. For those domestics who are not live-ins, residing further from the city centre often is effectively living closer to work. A second reason for sprawl among the poor is that real estate costs in Lusaka are exorbitant. For example, my rent here is nearly what I paid in Toronto despite the average income being orders of magnitude smaller. A lot of the city’s inhabited area is thus the product of squatting on otherwise undesirable land (at the edge of town) that progressively evolves into densely-populated communities that are referred to in the local vernacular as “compounds.”

Be aware that looking at a map of Lusaka can give a misleading view of its density: the pathways (i.e., streets) through the compounds are essentially informal and thus do not appear on maps. Look at Kalingalinga, Chipata, and the area just north of Chawama for examples of places that appear sparse on a road map but look different on satellite view. It’s also important to recognize that construction in poor neighbourhoods is often flimsy and two stories or less – thus our density is concentrated at the ground level. Furthermore, water and sanitation facilities are mostly lacking. When visualizing high-density Lusaka it is Dickens’ London and not modern Manhattan or Paris that makes the more accurate representation.

2) Rail transportation
Lusaka formerly had a commuter train. See http://www.railwaysafrica.com/blog/2011/12/lusaka%E2%80%99s-njanji-commuter-rail-service/
There is talk of re-opening it.


I wonder if there's an app for that, if someone was to write it?

Shaun Cleaver

Given the need for a more comprehensive and dynamic map for public transport in Lusaka, I have opted to launch a project to create one. Follow the evolution of this project at: http://lusakapublictransportmap.wordpress.com/

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