In cities where a nightmare commute consists of a train delay, it is hard to imagine the challenge of getting around in the developing world’s megacities, where a dearth of public transit means residents may have to rely on a rickshaw or an unregulated minivan to get where they need to go.
Routes and times on these informal transportation networks can change without notice, causing people to waste hours in transit, and fares can be unpredictable.
Now, new technologies—from big data to mobile-payment systems to geolocation-enabled smartphones—are helping to make some of these informal networks safer and more efficient. And that is allowing public officials to better integrate public transportation systems with the informal ones, creating a future in which residents in cities such as Delhi, India, and Bangkok, Thailand, will be able to plan an efficient trip that involves taking a public bus two stops and then transferring to a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled rickshaw known for its distinctive engine sound).
The issue is becoming more critical because in the coming decades, hundreds of millions of people will move to vast urban areas already choked with pollution and snarled by traffic congestion. In 1950, there were two cities of more than 10 million people; by 2040, there will be more than 40. From Lagos, Nigeria, to Karachi, Pakistan, to Kinshasa in the Congo, populations rely on informal mass-transit systems employing everything from minibuses to motorbikes to get them from place to place.
In Nairobi, Kenya, for example, 20,000 colorful “matatu” minibuses operate with little regulation, and many routes are run by local gangs. To maximize income, drivers try to carry as many passengers as possible and drive as fast as possible. The vehicles are poorly maintained and often unsafe.
In India, tuk-tuks account for 20% of motorized trips in some cities. But an inability to match supply and demand can result in inefficient pricing and low usage rates. Drivers spending hours looking for fares are more likely to refuse to take passengers to distant locations, or to jack up rates if they worry about finding a return fare. Residents thus spend even more of their already meager incomes on transportation. Uncertainty about being able to hail a ride also raises safety concerns, especially for female travelers.
Even in areas where local officials want to improve the transportation situation, they often lack good information about riding habits and preferences or about the informal network that most people use, making it difficult to build a public transportation system that connects with the informal one.
But that is starting to change.
In Nairobi, my colleagues from Columbia University, working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Nairobi, and Groupshot, a local technology design firm, produced a map of the seemingly Byzantine matatu system based on GPS data collected from riders’ mobile phones. They discovered that these bottom-up networks actually have a logic and pattern to them. With these networks now mapped, users can access the system more easily and efficiently, and local officials can plan bus and train routes around it. This comprehensive database of the matatu system allows easy mapping in Google Maps or other trip-planning applications.
Elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East, a startup backed by an Uber Technologies executive and an investment group formed by the founder of eBay Inc. is compiling information on the routes of minibuses and tuk-tuks so that it, too, can be compiled into network maps. This company, called WhereIsMyTransport, has data for 21 cities, and has fully mapped the informal transportation networks in Gaborone, Botswana, as well as in East London and Cape Town in South Africa.
In South Africa, planners initially intended to replace the informal networks, but they now plan to integrate them more seamlessly into new Bus Rapid Transit systems, since the informal networks are carrying an increasing fraction of passengers in the country. Similar efforts are under way in Manila; Mexico City; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Middle Eastern cities such as Beirut, Cairo, and Amman, Jordan.
In India, local startups have developed new mobile applications so that riders can hail rickshaws more easily, reducing uncertainty for riders and standardizing fares. Data collected through ride-hailing apps also allows for route optimization. And ride-hailing apps improve safety, especially for female riders now able to identify their drivers and more easily report harassment.
Technology also can ease congestion by improving the efficiency of carpooling, already very much part of the culture in many developing economies.
In Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, the ride-hailing company Grab has created a service called GrabHitch in which people can earn extra cash by allowing others to hitch a ride on their motorbikes.
Even in poorer cities, most people own mobile phones, and thus can pay for rides using mobile payments. This improves safety and convenience, reduces haggling, and enables innovative pricing schemes like peak and off-peak pricing.
Although new forces of information technology, data analytics and local entrepreneurship are coming together to improve the safety, reliability, and efficiency of the informal mass-transit networks that many in the developing world rely on, that doesn’t mean governments are off the hook.
In the long term, rapidly growing megacities will struggle to keep pace with the demand for urban mobility without an increase in government investment.