Bus sector modernisation as a crucial precursor to electrification

People getting off a bus
Improved public transport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

In many African countries, the buzz around electrification has overshadowed the need for urban transport reforms.

In their excitement towards this new industry, experts often overlook the core inefficiencies in our urban transport systems – especially in Africa, where government investments in public transport are minimal and land use policies encourage sprawl.

A more holistic approach centred on pedestrian-oriented neighbourhood planning and quality, and attractive public transport systems is key not only to reducing emissions but also to improving overall liveability in our cities.

Churchill Avenue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Improved infrastructure - also for pedestrians and cyclists - is the key to improving the traffic situation.

Existing business models are inconvenient and expensive

In many rapidly developing cities, the main mode of transport is unregulated paratransit services. The existing business model means paratransit crews work long hours for low and unstable pay with no benefits.

In many cases, the poor operating environment leads to dire road safety risks: drivers speed to maximise revenue from passenger fares, leading to crashes. Commercial imperatives drive the arrangement of routes, with most routes originating from city centres. The sector sees high competition for territory, with services over-supplied on main roads and under-supplied elsewhere.

In the absence of dedicated road space for public transport, buses and minibuses regularly end up stuck in traffic, resulting in time-consuming and expensive trips. In addition, the segregation of land uses – where a single commercial core is surrounded by dispersed residential uses – in most cities leads to heavy congestion on major arterials leading to the city centre.

An exclusive focus on electrification could lead to unintended urban challenges

Kigali has improved the regulation of motorbikes to ensure more road safety.

Electrification of the current paratransit fleets without modernising the industry will not improve efficiency or quality of service. In addition, with tax-free or reduced taxes on electric vehicle imports, private vehicle use will become even more attractive, further increasing congestion and the incentive to build wider car-centric roads and parking spaces rather than investing in affordable public transport and housing.

Congestion in urban areas and poor-quality public transport have resulted in exponential two-wheeler growth in many African cities. While these vehicles are a great solution for first-and-last-mile access, many cities are seeing two-wheelers supplant buses as a main mode of transport for commutes on trunk corridors. To date, the lack of effective laws and policies to govern two-wheeler use has led to increasing traffic accidents and high fatality rates.

The growing calls for charging stations for electric two-wheelers is further shifting the government’s focus away from implementing critical public transport infrastructure such as bus depots, terminals, and bus shelters, which are non-existent in most cities. Yet ensuring that the right public transport infrastructure is in place is the only sustainable way to ensure African cities are efficient and liveable.

A more holistic and inclusive approach is needed

People boarding a train.
Inclusion for people with disabilities in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

To improve our cities, a more holistic approach is needed, focusing on limiting travel through compact cities, transit-oriented development, and investments in walking and cycling. In addition, a shift from private vehicle use to more efficient public transport is required. However, this is only possible if cities make adequate investments in quality urban infrastructure and operations.

Public transport reforms are key in facilitating greater government regulation and investment in the sector. The government should plan out urban public transport routes based on observed demand patterns. Individual bus operators should merge to form companies that can then bid to offer services on specific routes. The service contract issued by the government defines the relationship with the bus company, allowing the government to determine the quality of service, and at what price.

Independent service provider for fare collection

Fare collection should be handled by an independent service provider that is answerable to the government, with electronic fare verification using smart cards, phones, or bank cards. Operators should be paid based on a formula that is heavily weighted on a fee-per-kilometre-operated, making it possible to incentivise bus companies to offer safe, quality services and follow their assigned schedules instead of waiting until vehicles are full. In addition, as per the service contract, operators will be able to upgrade and electrify the fleet, with financing incentives from the government. The government should invest in bus depots that can facilitate proper maintenance and house charging stations.

Establishing a bus rapid transit

On high-demand corridors, governments ought to invest in bus rapid transit (BRT), which can be a very attractive option for private vehicle users to avoid getting stuck in traffic.

To further reduce urban emissions, BRT fleets can be fully electric. In order for BRT systems to meet their full potential, they must incorporate features that contribute to system performance, including median-aligned bus lanes; level boarding from centrally aligned stations; passing lanes; and off-board fare collection. In addition, BRT operations should include multiple operators based on competitive bids to ensure efficient and quality services.

Electrification as part of an integrated concept

Any city that attempts to rely on private vehicles – electrified or not – will face growing challenges around congestion and parking. The only way to reduce the allure of private vehicle use is to offer quality public transport systems that can bypass traffic jams and congestion. Modernising the sector and providing quality infrastructure makes electrification easier and more efficient. In addition, street designs need to accommodate all users including pedestrians and cyclists to ensure that these zero-emission modes are safe and comfortable for all. Lastly, electric bicycles, motorcycles and three-wheelers can offer first-and-last-mile access to public transport, creating a more sustainable urban ecosystem.

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