In Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam, a 10-mile commute by car can take as long as two hours, and if you are scheduling business meetings you need to plan for an hour of travel each way, and even then you may arrive late. During rush hour, the police often convert both lanes of a two-way thoroughfare into one-way travel, with no advance notice, a sure recipe for gridlock as traffic backs up behind cars waiting for two-way travel to resume, and of course no one knows when that may be.
Dar, like many cities in Africa, has experienced explosive population growth but its infrastructure, built for a much smaller population, has not kept pace. In 1990 the city had about 1.4 million people. Today it has around 4.2 million, representing an annual growth rate of nearly 4.5%, and growth continues to accelerate, with a projected population of 6.2 million by 2025 and over 21 million by 2050. Dar will become Africa’s fastest-growing city by 2020, against some formidable competition from other urban areas, and will achieve “megacity” status – a population of more than 10 million – by the early 2030s. According to Atlantic Media’s CityLab web site, New York City added 4 million people over the past 100 years, while Dar es Salaam will add 21 million over a similar period.
The reasons for this growth are not hard to identify. It may not be obvious as you drive through some of the informal settlements (a polite term for shantytown), most of which lack paved streets, running water, and sanitation, among other basic amenities, but Dar, with a poverty rate of only 4.3%, is vastly better off than rural areas, where a third or more of the people live in abject poverty. The shantytowns of Dar es Salaam may be crowded and unsanitary, but life there offers far better opportunities to claw one’s way out of poverty – or at least to eat two or three times a day – than the villages from which their residents have migrated. The U.N. estimates that some 70% of Tanzania’s urban population lives in informal areas, but at the same time, no other city in Africa will lift more of its residents into the middle class – defined as annual income between $5,000 and $30,000 – by 2030.
Mindful of the need to address urban gridlock, the national government launched a $290 million project with funding from the African Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Japanese development agency JICA to build a 21-km network of dedicated bus lanes running down the center of three major urban transit routes, which included some 30 bus stations situated at 500-meter intervals, and which would carry more than 400,000 passengers daily. Subsequent phases were planned to add a further 110 km to the network by 2025.
The bus lanes in Phase 1 of the project were completed in 2015, as were the bus stations, graceful structures with swooping roof lines and louvered side walls to let the sea breezes through. But so far the bus lanes are used mainly by bicycles and motorcycles and the stations serve mainly as informal bazaars and places for couples to canoodle and the homeless to sleep.
The buses have not yet started running because of a dispute over fares between the operating company and the Dar es Salaam Rapid Transit (DART), the government regulator. The operator has proposed a one-way fare of up to 1,400 shillings (about 65 cents), while the regulator, backed by government and citizens’ groups, has insisted on fares of 400 to 600 shillings, the standard fare for the “dala dala” minibus taxis that are currently the mainstay of public transport in Dar.
Tanzanian wages are low: a sewing machine operator in a garment factory makes about 10,000 shillings a day, a sales clerk in a shop about 9,000 shillings, a primary school teacher 19,000, and a mid-level civil servant around 30,000. Since many people may have to take two buses to get to work, the fares proposed by the operator could eat up as much as a third of daily income for some workers. Poor people generally have more time than money so many, especially in the lower income echelons, would opt to spend as much as four hours on the daily commute and save a couple of thousand shillings.
It comes down to a matter of sleeping less but having a bit more to spend on food, medicine, children’s school fees, and cell phone air time: the kind of tough choices many potential bus riders will face unless the regulator comes down on the side of the passengers. An obvious solution would be for the government to offer the operators a partial fare subsidy for at least an initial trial period until the number of riders rises to a level at which they can make an investment return on fares that represent some reasonable compromise between what they would like to get and what the traveling public can afford.
It’s not certain that the donors who put up the funds to build the system would go along, and in this they would be echoing the attitude of New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority in the 1970s and 1980s. There, as subway trains became hotter, more crowded, noisier, more crime-ridden, and covered with graffiti inside and out, and as riders deserted the system for less stressful means of transport, the authority raised fares to make up for the revenue shortfall, causing the system to lose passengers and money at an ever-accelerating rate.
New York’s subways are vastly better than they were 30 years ago, but the MTA still loses money and depends on injections of funds from city and state governments to keep operating and maintaining its infrastructure. However, with the exception of Hong Kong’s privately-operated Mass Transit Railway (MTR), few, if any urban mass transit systems in the world operate at a profit. Tanzania’s government and its international backers should recognize this and respond accordingly before it is too late.