Shaun Cleaver is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. His main career focus is disability and rehabilitation in low resource settings. This work has taken Shaun to Haiti, remote northern Canada, South Africa, Cameroon, and most recently Zambia where he is exploring the possibility of conducting participatory research with leaders in the disability community
I am a temporary resident of Lusaka, having recently relocated to Zambia’s capital city from Canada. Now that I am here I need to get around, and doing so has been a voyage of discovery into the public transportation system that is responsible for most of my comings and goings in this sprawling African city.
There is currently no system to disseminate information on public transportation in Lusaka. As a new rider looking to understand the network in its entirety, I have been forced to cobble together information gleaned from specific discussions, my own experience and observations, and rare nuggets left on the internet like messages in bottles left to float on the great Internet Sea and hopefully find their way to future adventurers trying to make sense of the chaos.
In analyzing operations here I am building upon my perspectives as a regular user of multiple systems in high-income countries (particularly in Southern Ontario), as well as those of low-income countries where I have lived, such as Haiti. Where they apply I will draw upon the principles described by Jarrett in this blog and the associated book. As Jarrett states in the Introduction of the book, there are some important differences between public transportation between “the developed world” and “the developing world,” but also some common phenomena. I will use this post to identify the characteristics of such a system to provide a baseline perspective for blog readers unfamiliar with these realities. Indeed, some analysts suggest that these features should be applied to transportation systems in high-income countries too, making it even more relevant that riders in those countries understand the consequences of such structures.
Loading: What makes it all go?
Like many cities in low- and middle-income countries (especially Africa), public transportation in Lusaka is operated as a seemingly infinite number of mostly-independent small businesses that depend exclusively on fare revenue. The backbone of the system is the minibus: a van with row seating operated by a 2-person crew (a driver and a conductor, to whom I will refer to collectively as the operators). I have heard differing accounts as to the proportion of buses that are operated by their owners – as compared to those that owned by entrepreneurs in some revenue-sharing arrangement with the operators – leading me to conclude that both models are common. In order to earn a living the drivers and conductors need to maximize the revenue from their one vehicle while minimizing the operating expenses, the most substantial of which is fuel. With massive unemployment in Zambia and low wages the norm for the masses, there are many people willing to do this work on a rather tight margin. Time is a concern for drivers, but less-so than the cost of petrol, so the constant preoccupation of the operators is ensuring that all available space on the moving vehicle is earning fare revenue. Usually the bus will generally not move until full (the exception being when movement is likely to help it fill).
At this point I feel obligated to substantiate what is meant by “full”. In objective terms, this means that each of the benches in the four rows behind the driver has four fare-paying adults, and that there are another two adults in the front next to the driver. Thus, the minibus is only “full” when there are 19 people in it (and it is possible to squeeze another few riders if there are low odds of a police checkpoint). Remember that I am referring to a vehicle that is effectively a van. Consider this: when boarding I usually prepare the fare prior to entering, as when I take my seat I am not able to reach into my pocket due the proximity of the other riders.
In addition to the “market forces” that incentivize the individual operators to pursue ridership goals, the system has regulations imposed upon it by the municipal and national governments, and some amount of collective self-regulation. The governmental regulations apply primarily to the vehicles, but also to the routes and stops. The most visible aspect of those regulations is the mandatory colour scheme, which has traditionally seen all registered public transportation vehicles painted different shades of blue and white (although white with an orange stripe was recently approved as an acceptable alternative). Vehicles are also registered by the Road Traffic Safety Authority (RTSA) as having met certain safety standards.
Lusakans have varying accounts of the regulation of routes and stops, but the evidence is pointing towards minibuses only being authorized to and pick up and carry passengers on a limited number of pre-identified roads. On certain major arterial roads the stops are more clearly established with designated pull-out areas, whereas on other roads it is common practice to pick passengers up or drop them off just about anywhere.
Operators have organized into a syndicate, but it is not clearly visible to a rider and seems to be only rarely referred to in the media. Nonetheless, operators seem to have a collective voice to negotiate the designation of roads as being minibus approved and to set fares. Minibus fares are formally established and publicized according to a fare by distance model. It is notable that the publicized fares do not include every origin/destination possibility, yet every journey has an established and precise fare that is collectively known to conductors and regular riders, although often rounded up or down to the nearest half kwacha.
Of note, journeys that start and finish among more quiet parts of the routes seem to be priced more affordably than trips of similar distances in busier areas: I am unsure if this is the product of intentional calculation, or simply based upon the collective experience of what riders will pay and operators will accept in order to fill the minibus. On the routes where large buses run these sometimes cost less than minibuses, although the ride is generally slower due to the longer fill times.
Setting off: How it all fits together
Lusaka’s urban form and road network converges with the imperative to maximize ridership to create a radial system focused on the traditional commercial area west of Cairo Road (referred to locally as “Town”), where the minibuses serve four central terminal stations. According to these conditions the radial system self-perpetuates. Riders know that any destination in the city can be accessed through a connection in Town, and therefore usually head there unless there is a specific outbound destination in-mind. Operators want their bus to be full before moving and the sequential departures in the downtown terminals ensure timely filling. Once a vehicle sets out on it route it will likely have passengers heading all the way to the route’s outer terminus; there the operators find that the best way to fill the minibus is to serve the most popular destination – Town.
In a system that is driven by millions of individual micro-decisions there are few examples of system-level thinking, making information on the system as a whole conspicuously absent. In trying to understand the collection of possible trips that the system allows I have had to patch together multiple practical questions about how to get from individual points A and B. Almost inevitably the answer goes “First you look for a bus into Town; when you get to Town ask for the bus to where you are going.” Lusaka's minibus fare structure includes no provision for making connections between different routes. Instead, the rider must pay a fare penalty with every boarding. This has the effect of enforcing the "one transfer into town" model as the cheapest way to get from point to point, even if making connections would effect a time savings or shorter trip distance.To date I have only seen one example of a route map; one rider’s best guess at identifying the patterns of movement as drawn onto a Google Map. Consistent with my experience, the legend is laden with question marks; fortunately, it is close enough to being accurate as to be useful. Other points of reference that I have found include an ode to the minibus operators and a superficial but practical account that essentially concludes that ‘it’s really just far easier to take a taxi.’
Despite this seeming anarchy, there are clearly routes. The picture of Millennium Station shown here demonstrates the (surprisingly) orderly system of organizing the minibuses by destination, a welcoming particularity of the central terminals. As a new rider it was initially nerve-wracking that the vehicles themselves were void of visual markers to indicate the route. Having been a Lusaka-resident for less than two months I have already internalized the irrelevance of such markings: if the minibus wants you as a passenger they will let you know where they are going. If I am headed home but not at one of the downtown terminals I know to listen for a conductor hanging out the window yelling the familiar “Garden, Ng’ombe, Roma, yooooo!” that will take me along the predictable route home.
Astute readers will have presumably identified certain drawbacks of this organizational arrangement. “If all of the minibuses converge on a limited area, does this not strain the road capacity?” (Answer: yes, yes it does.) “If there is sufficient demand for origin/destination pairings outside of Town, would drivers not seek to fill that void and serve those riders?” (Answer: sort of, read on.) “If all of the minibuses fill at the terminal, what happens to those riders who try to board minibuses along the route?” (Answer: they watch a lot of full buses drive past them while waiting for one that stops to let off a passenger; or, for reasons to be explained shortly, a spacious minibus could pull up, but this is usually not as much of a blessing as it seems).
With almost all vehicles converging on the city centre the congestion there is indeed horrendous. For most of the connection-required trips that I take I know in advance that up to half of the travel time will be spent inching down one of the few roads into Town, before waiting for my next minibus to fill and inching back out again. For this reason it is very desirable to identify travel possibilities that do not include a downtown connection.
Fortunately, I have found a few. One of these is at the terminal in front of the University Teaching Hospital (in the central south-eastern part of the city, well outside of Town). Here there are minibuses that serve other parts of the city using orbital lines of travel, including two routes that get me close enough to walk home. Using either one of these reduces my travel time by a minimum of 30 minutes. Sounds great, eh? Sort of – if we bear in mind some caveats. The first is that the minibus takes longer to fill; and only does so reliably at certain times of day (particularly as the hospitals day activities come to an end, around 5pm). The time I save traveling is sometimes more than accounted for while sitting on a slowly filling bus for an hour. Next, the operators charge a fare premium for the “short-cut” (a term that seems to nearly gain official status in the frequent fare disputes among unsuspecting riders). To be fair to the operators, the fare premium is not unwarranted due to the time lost in filling this lesser used route, and the operators seem to have to pay a fee to use the terminal: serving these unusual routes does indeed address an unmet demand, but does so at a cost. As a rider I am still in the process of determining when it is in my interest to use “short-cut routes” and plan my journeys accordingly.
Indeed, the use of the terminals seems to be a calculated decision on the part of operators. In one sense the benefit is clear in that the vehicle at the front of the queue is guaranteed to fill and then the driver and conductor need only to replace disembarking passengers along the route. On the other hand, time is lost while waiting for one’s turn and the fee to use the terminal cuts into profits.
For these reasons it is not uncommon to see a minibus begin its journey somewhere along the route. As a passenger, however, boarding an empty minibus en-route can prove to be a tactical error that often leads to a frustrating wait of unknown duration as the conductor runs up and down side streets looking for any signs of potential paying customers. To give the minibus the appearance that it is about to leave the drivers will often turn on the ignition and inch the minibus forward as the conductor frantically tries to steer people on “Come, come, let’s go! We’re going!” moments before the driver cuts the ignition once more. Often enough the bus will venture off-route as the driver and conductor whistle for attention.
More occasionally the vehicle will proceed forward along the route to repeat this ritual in more promising locations. It sometimes, but rarely, occurs that this forward progress is sufficient to allow a rider to reach a destination before the minibus fills.
On the road: the pearls and pitfalls of this type of system
In this environment, where the city is large and private automobile ownership is beyond the means of most, there is substantial demand for public transportation. The capital investment required to serve that demand (by purchasing a minibus) is notable but not extravagant. High unemployment and low wages mean that there are plenty of people willing to depend on the thin and unpredictable profit margin earned by drivers and conductors. The inevitable response to that equation is the abundance of minibuses, which makes competition a necessity – but not usually in ways that make operations more pleasant.
Riders feel one perpetual manifestation of this when approaching busy mid-route stops. Since I frequently board inbound minibuses at the University of Zambia I happen to know that stop to be notoriously undesirable: accessing the stop requires walking along a long footpath with only one destination, so the conductors start aggressively courting passengers over a hundred metres from the stop, well before riders can see which vehicle they are being asked to board. Once a conductor has claimed a passenger for his (usually empty) minibus there is an understanding that the passenger belongs to him. Of course this conflicts with the interests of all competing operators (and quite often with the interests of the passenger) leaving physical aggression as one of the few tools to enforce the claim. The conductors often shout at one another and try to steer passengers towards their vehicles. Sometimes the situation comes to blows. The entire charade occurs while there are more than sufficient passengers to fill any one given vehicle, yet a multitude sit immobile as operators calculate how many more passengers are worth their while to compete over.
At busy stops and some terminals there is another group of individuals who add to the dynamic, the “call boys” or ngangwazi. Call boys provide the “service” of collecting passengers for approaching vehicles, in exchange for a payment from operators. Readers familiar with the informal economy in low-income countries will know that this is not merely a benign value-added service: the call boys will steer riders away from operators who do not pay. Call boys can be very aggressive in their activities as their earnings are based upon their ability to influence ridership and operator behaviour, and aggression is one of the few tactics they have at their disposal to achieve this goal. Call boys are thus generally disliked, although their presence is usually tolerated as a fact of life. On occasion the activities of call boys can reach a tipping point that stimulates an organized response, as has recently occurred at one of the terminal stations.
The designated pull-outs that have been created for stops are at least advantageous in that waiting passengers are more fully separated from the speeding traffic. Those with specific entrances and exits (presumably designed to instill flow on the otherwise erratic vehicle movement around stops) can occasionally be a curse, however, as it is not uncommon for a minibus to bypass the entrance and park blocking the exit – ensuring that no one moves until that (now) front vehicle is full. Predictably, this strategy also comes with conflict.
The corollary of the empty minibus waiting to fill is the full minibus speeding toward its destination. Many of the secondary roads in Lusaka have wide rights of way but only one paved lane in each direction. When traffic is heavy it is thus common to see drivers leave the road in order to bypass traffic. Although I have yet to see a vehicle stopped for this manoeuvre I am quite confident that it is illegal. Interestingly, this is a strategy that is mostly employed by minibuses and the occasional taxi, making me believe that this is a calculated risk on the part of drivers where the potential of a fine/bribe is weighed against the revenue lost by weighting in traffic. Using the logic of spontaneity, it is almost possible to interpret the unpaved shoulders as public transportation queue jump lanes.
Since Lusaka public transportation vehicles arrange riders by rows they are equipped with “flip down seating” where the aisle disappears as the vehicle fills. This design means that half of the bus must disembark/re-embark if a passenger in the back right corner needs to alight, a reality that passengers seem to accept readily, although grudgingly. Minibuses thus fill in a predictable pattern where the permanent seats near the front fill first, followed by the back seat, followed by the aisle. Although it is tempting to try and avoid the most buried of seats it is necessary for someone to take them – and the vehicle will not move until someone does. Besides, sitting in an aisle seat is no relaxing nap either as the rider needs to regularly exit and re-enter the vehicle to allow others off.
Fares are collected by the conductor in a wave starting at the front and moving backwards as soon as the vehicle starts moving, with riders shouting out the “name” of their stop (usually a nearby landmark). With the varied and precise fares there is a constant issue of having adequate change; it is common practice for a minibus to pull into a petrol station mid-route in order to simultaneously gas up and seek change. With the back seats of the bus being beyond the reach of the conductor it means that the fare payments and any change given need to be passed from hand-to-hand. The process is even more complicated on the busy routes where large buses are used and money needs to be passed over as many as 5 rows of intermediaries, creating plenty of opportunities for dropped coins.
With the operations focused on full and fast-moving (where possible) vehicles, “problem riders” are not particularly welcome on Lusaka minibuses. Although it is not uncommon to see a rider board with construction supplies or a massive bag of corn flour (with the payment of an additional fare), I have yet to see a rider with a disability, nor a parent with a stroller, sights which are commonplace during my transit journeys around Canadian cities. Strollers are likely a moot point for most Lusakans as in Zambian culture the traditional way for a parent to carry a child is using a chitenge with the baby wrapped around the mother’s back. As for the disabled, the current situation at least disadvantages, if not outright excludes, riders who have practical difficulties in meeting the expectation of boarding quickly and squeezing oneself into a tight space.
Riding minibuses is far more affordable than owning a vehicle or riding private taxis, but still expensive on local terms. One advantage of a radial network in a system where every transfer means a new fare is that almost every origin-destination pair involves only one connection, and making the journey a little cheaper in the process. I learned this myself in my daily commute for language classes from my home in Roma (north part of the city) to Bauleni (south-east). When I would travel there through Town there was only one connection and the fare was 9.50 kwacha (currently 5.5 kwacha = $1US), and the one-way trip would take nearly two hours with the traffic. Through some experimentation I learned how to make the same journey using a combination of inbound, outbound, and orbital routes (including a shared taxi), requiring five connections, but dropping my travel time to under 90 minutes. However, the total fare rose to 19.50 kwacha. The entire journey from home to class by private taxi is about 25 minutes in the morning rush hour, but costs me 80 kwacha. Meanwhile, until quite recently the minimum monthly wage for a domestic worker in Zambia was 480 kwacha for up to 24 days of work. Had a maid or cleaner been making the same trip that I was (which is not implausible), using the slowest and cheapest routing, the fares would have consumed the equivalent of an entire month’s salary.
The reality that travel is expensive helps to explain the ridership behaviour of patiently waiting at stops while vehicles take an eternity to fill and depart: a rider is always free to get up and leave the vehicle before their destination, but by doing so (s)he will forfeit the fare paid early in the ride. It is possible to chase down the conductor and try to persuade the granting of a refund or a rebate, but this is a discussion in which a rider holds precious little leverage. Indeed, there is a more severe form of this situation where minibuses have maintenance issues; it is not uncommon to see a crowd waiting near a vehicle that is jacked up for a tire change so that those riders can benefit from the remainder of the trip for which they have already paid.
Reflecting on the ride
The foundational principles of this system ensure that it will only remain a viable, let alone enticing, option for the primary transportation needs of a certain section of the population: those in the income band that can afford to use it but not afford greater convenience. Presently, that population is large enough, and their expectations low enough, to support an entire industry. The system exists at the convergence of a price point that is accessible to a large number of riders, the profitability required for operators to earn a meagre living, and a level of functionality where riding is (usually) at least a bit preferable to walking. In this respect, public transportation in Lusaka is similar to a large and growing number of rapidly expanding cities where the current public policy is that the government offer the absolute minimum of attention and interest. The rider’s experience on such a system is directly proportional to that interest and attention.
Beyond income, there is also an element of class association; some Lusakans that I have spoken with do not consider minibus travel even for the trips where it could make practical sense and in the situations where it definitely makes economic sense. It seems to be a common sentiment in more elite groups that staying home is preferable, “as that is not a transportation option for me/us.”
With minibus riders and operators not well-represented among the economically or politically powerful, this form of transportation seems to be framed as a problem (rather than a solution) in the dominant discourse. One seemingly common framing is that of minibuses “creating congestion” by veering from their designated routes or stopping outside of designated areas. With this framing the apparent solution to the hot-button issue of congestion is the application of increasing constraint to minibus operation. Similar views are common regarding the enforcement of regular departure times, and the obligation that operators accept passengers with disabilities (Persons with Disabilities Act). There have even been calls for citizen surveillance regarding vehicle conduct and maintenance. Such strategies use the stick while neglecting the carrot: the current realities of discomfort and unpredictability are in fact rational products of a system where the prime incentivizing force is the ability of a multitude of independent operators to generate a very thin margin of subsistence profit. Although it is possible to improve the situation experienced by riders through greater regulation and enforcement, these options should be recognized as one policy stream among many; and that these options need not be limited to those that shift the burdens from riders to operators.
“MaConducta’, nisala!”: Disembarking
Despite its pitfalls, public transportation in Lusaka is generally safe, as understood from both crime and road safety dimensions. It is, however, intimidating to an unfamiliar rider, and there are no mechanisms to encourage rider orientation at a system-level (note that I do not consider having a conductor run up and grab your arm while asking “Where are you going [right now]?” to be reasonable orientation). This post will hopefully serve as a de-mystifying agent for at least some potential riders with open minds, patience, and an interest for a respectful taste of the daily reality of many Lusakans. May we collectively establish how to maximize the system for what it does well while systematically steering clear of its worst issues.