Crisis often sparks changes to the ways we move. Post-war prosperity made the automobile a household item, and lifestyle. The 1970s global oil and fiscal crisis brought a short-lived bike boom and a retreat of city dollars for public transit. And the 2008 financial crisis paved the way for venture capital in Silicon Valley to explode, propping up new platforms like Uber and Waze.
But the pandemic may pose the greatest disruption. Unlike crises in the past, the virus was a direct assault on modern-day movement itself — restricting how we navigate our neighborhoods, our cities and our world. And we’ve seen the contours of what could be lasting trends. The plummet in public transit ridership, and the question of whether remote work will threaten a full-throated return. The move away from shared to personal forms of mobility, like walking, cycling and, yes, more cars. And an unprecedented scaling of delivery vehicles on our streets.
But another mode is receiving newfound attention as well. Informal transport — “unofficial,” or unregulated, modes that dominate cities in the global south — has long served as a linchpin to opportunities and basic services for urban dwellers, be it finding a job, accessing education, or connecting with health- or childcare. That didn’t stop during COVID-19; in fact, the systems, heavily utilized by the most marginalized, played a pivotal role for so many urban inhabitants. But like formal transit, the industry suffered — yet without the same safety net to catch them.
Both before and during the pandemic, researchers at PEAK Urban, a five-institution research initiative based out of the University of Oxford, analyzed elements of low-cost, less formal transport services in a number of different contexts: who they serve, what issues they face and where they’re most useful. And as talks continue on “building back better,” their insights provide lessons to how cities can recover more equitably and sustainably than before.
Filling in the Gaps
In the global south, informal transport is partially an enduring legacy of another crisis: the structural adjustments of the 1980s, when loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank forced cutbacks even as populations grew, and “state-less” operators filled the gaps. That was the case in Abidjan, the economic heart of the Ivory Coast. “Crises seem to always provoke expansion and development for informal sectors,” says Jacob Doherty, a PEAK researcher who focused his research there.
In Abidjan, that takes shape in three general forms, says Doherty. There are gbaka, or mini-buses that run on longer, fixed routes; a “pool”-like communal taxi service whose destinations are generally determined by the next passenger in line; and salonis, an emerging taxi-tricycle. The pandemic restricted passengers but didn’t debilitate the industry, Doherty adds, due in large part to the country’s containment.
For his field work, Doherty spent time with mothers who relied on these modes to get their kids to school. The women, he said, rarely go into the city center, and instead conduct short peripheral trips — commutes often overlooked in transport planning, which tends to emphasize economics. “One planner explicitly said, “Don’t they [mothers] just stay at home? You should be looking at how people get to and from work,’” Doherty told me.
In that sense, he argued that mothers in Abidjan already live in the much-lauded “15-minute city,” an increasingly popular trend that envisions residents being able to conduct all essential activities within a short walk or cycle. But the major infrastructure projects going in — new bus rapid transit, new metro lines — are still focused around the downtown, he said. Understanding where informal transport is concentrated could add a crucial equity piece. (On that note, the French Development Agency, or AFD, is currently funding a mapping initiative with WRI and other partners that aims to display the ongoing changes to both formal and informal operators, in an effort to encourage cohesive planning.)
The city plays a partial regulatory role with gbaka, designating different zones and routes, but a more sidelined role with shared cabs and salonis. An active approach — encouraging, say, female-led employment in growing peripheral areas, or accessible but affordable electrification — could help the city achieve larger goals.
“With these kinds of things, there’s a lot more scope for experimentation and support to think about how these can be linked to longer-term decarbonization transitions,” says Doherty, “and the creation of good, dignified work for people involved.”
In India, the latter point is making headlines, as demonstrated by the latest strikes against Amazon across the subcontinent. Along with Professor Tim Schwanen, researcher Lucy Baker focused on how e-wallets and digital platforms, like Uber and Ola, are upending the auto-rickshaw industry in India — trends only accelerated by COVID.
The new tech hands some power back to operators, says Baker, in terms of self-selecting hours and circumventing territorial groups. But not without issues around fair labor practices. (PEAK researcher Bhawani Buswala documented the hardships faced by drivers during the pandemic.) The platforms will undoubtedly hold a significant presence in urban life for some time to come. So, cities should seize the moment to improve precarious livelihoods.
For example, police often target auto-rickshaws, Baker said. While persecution should be minimized, those fines can also be put to more productive causes — like training cash-based drivers and their spouses for new platforms. Or making it easier to know the fines themselves, through voice recognition software. “These fines start to accumulate, and they don’t know about them,” says Baker. “If that information can be more accessible, that would definitely help with financial management.”
Reducing Private Car Use
Informal transport plays another key role — it helps get people out of cars.
PEAK researchers in Beijing found that urban fringe residents are often subject to the phenomenon of “forced car ownership,” where they must bear the economic costs of an automobile due to limited access to jobs and services, like public transit. “Travel time and cost in the urban fringe areas are significantly higher than both the urban and rural areas,” they said. Residents are living in — yet disconnected — from their own city.
But informal transport can be there fast. And when shifts happen, like we’ve seen in the last year, they can sometimes be more responsive than built systems. “Cities do change quite quickly,” says Baker. “So take Bangalore, which has evolved way quicker than the public transport system has been able to keep up, in terms of its development. It is catching up now with new metro services, but they kind of displace the auto-rickshaw as the last mile feeder mode.”
In his lifetime, Rafael Prieto Curiel, a PEAK researcher based in Mexico City, says he has seen the population in the country’s capital nearly double, to nearly 22 million. But the number of cars in Distrito Federal has jumped even faster. “Twice the number of people, four times the number of cars,” says Prieto Curiel. “The city is a parking lot now.”
This is the story of countless cities in the global south, where cheap, subsidized gas and used exports have helped cause an explosion of car use in recent years, raising concerns around congestion and pollution while threatening larger sustainability goals. The pandemic could worsen the trend.
As news around public transit turned dire, Prieto Curiel and his colleagues asked: where does public transit use end, and car use begin? Research shows that if car commutes are much faster, most users gravitate towards them. But if public transit is the same or faster, the choice isn’t so obvious.
Using a model based on time and convenience, they concluded that boosting efficiency could be a path forward for public transit. Ease every barrier, from contactless payment to reliable service, and avoid chokeholds. The pandemic was an exercise in the opposite, as limited capacity meant less frequent service, slowing down trips and making the car appealing. “Add in face masks, temperature checks, hand sanitizers,” he said. “Those times add up to a very large chunk that we’re paying as commuting time.”
Informal transport, he argues, can help. Perhaps it’s a mototaxi to a bus, with payment platforms and schedules that match up. Or special lanes for shared taxis to breeze past single-use vehicles. Anything that helps make the experience more seamless. “I do think that will attract people right now,” Prieto Curiel argued.
Transit has to be more equitable, inclusive and sustainable — a global pandemic shouldn’t have to tell us that. Once again, informal operators demonstrated their immense value in meeting these goals, although too often at a detriment to themselves. Cities should not make that mistake again: including informal transport in recovery plans could make life better for all the key players that make up our urban landscapes — riders, operators, agencies, and the places they call home.
It’s now up to cities to decide what comes next.
John Surico is a journalist and researcher. He is a fellow at Center for an Urban Future, a leading think tank in New York City, and teaches urban journalism at New York University. He holds an MSc in Transport & City Planning from University College London.