Readers of this blog will notice the large gap between my last post and this one. Primary explanation: I have relocated from Lusaka to Mongu, the main town in Zambia’s Western Province. With the relocation I have been busier, have had less internet time, and have been without Lusaka public transport stimulation. On the flip side, I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with a public transport system in another part of Zambia. Some aspects of the other system are similar to what I know in Lusaka; others are interestingly different. I see both the similar and the divergent as being informative with respect to transport in Zambia.
Mongu is a far smaller city than Lusaka, making it far easier to master the system; indeed, in town there are essentially only two routes. Interestingly, they do not connect. The seemingly busier of the two is the horseshoe shaped route “Chisonga-Shoprite-Town” (refer to blue line on map, inset). I live along this route and it connects many of the destinations that I frequent, therefore I use it 2-6 times/day. The most notable difference for a rider groomed on Zambia public transport in Lusaka is that the vehicles on this route do not wait to fill prior to departing. In case you missed it, let me repeat, the vehicles do not wait until they are full to move! The result is that I am able to cross the road in front of my house and have a vehicle with space arrive within 5 minutes for a trip in either direction just about any time between 7am and 7pm (it’s possible both earlier and later, but the vehicles are less frequent and their spacing more irregular). The lone exception to this trend is my inbound trip during the morning rush hour: during these times vehicles do fill, so I can be passed up by a few minibuses before one picks me up. During this time it is usually a wise move to walk to the more accepted stop at “Shoprite Junction”, a mere 200m up the road. This is one of the locations where buses are likely to park for a minute or two to fill before heading into town.
Besides the relaxation of the prerequisite on traveling full, another surprise is the relative absence of variation to the route: in the part of the route that I typically use (from Shoprite Junction to Town), a driver will occasionally reverse if he notices that he missed a potential passenger, but will practically never leave the line of travel. This is a notable difference from Lusaka where buses will commonly carve new routes on short notice in order to trawl for passengers or avoid congestion. From my house to the route terminus at Chisonga Junction it appears more common for the buses to deviate, with occasional travel at “Ka Gravel”, towards the University of Barotseland from “Esco”, or down the recently paved road at “Kamelata”. Vehicles also start their journey before the actual start of the route.
The other intra-city route in Mongu is “Station-Mandanga”, essentially a straight line along Lusaka Road with the exception of an end-of-route turn into the bus station (refer to red line on map, inset). Buses along this route are much less frequent, although the route is also covered by shared taxis that charge bus fare. When walking along Lusaka Road I am often passed up by full buses, giving me the impression that it is more common for vehicles along this route to fill at the termini. Although I have traveled this route a few times it is not enough to know the patterns and idiosyncrasies of the route well.
In addition to these routes in Mongu town, there are regular shared taxi and minibus routes to surrounding areas. The one I know best is Town-Malengwa-Limulunga that is essentially a peri-urban route. Serving a similar demand in the opposite direction are buses and taxis bound for Sefula leaving from the Senanga Road-side of the station market.
Some similarities between Lusaka and Mongu are apparent: both use similar vehicle types and have travel consolidated to some important main routes. There are also notable differences; like the minor role of stations for travel within the town and the movement of vehicles prior to their being full. As a rider, it is this last point that intrigues me most, and makes my travels in Mongu far more comfortable and less frustrating than those in Lusaka. It appears that there is some incentivizing structure in Mongu to operate this way, yet I cannot yet determine exactly what that is. My initial hypothesis is that this is because the route is busy from both terminals and at nearly all points in between, such that drivers can be confident they will get business along the route, and therefore leaving the terminals with space. This in turn means that riders along the start of the route are not being passed up by full vehicles and therefore have no reason to walk to the terminals to board. By contrast, the Mandanga-Station route is busier at its terminals than the destinations in-between, providing drivers the incentive to fill before starting off. At this stage l cannot know whether this trend is simply the product of a demand pattern related to urban form or some other factors – regardless, it is a great thing that should be emulated elsewhere in Zambia.
Mongu is currently undergoing changes that could have major impacts on its public transport system: until recently the only roads easily passable for vehicles were the trunk roads connecting Mongu with surrounding communities. With ongoing upgrades to the city’s road network it is likely that travel patterns will diversify. Of note is a newly paved road that has not yet officially opened that is essentially a short-cut between Chisonga and Town through residential neighbourhoods, as opposed to the current routing using Senanga Rd and Independence Avenue with more commercial and institutional destinations. It is likely that there will be some sort of public transport on this road (be it buses or shared taxis), but it remains to be determined if this will complement the highly useful Town-Shoprite-Chisonga route or cut into its ridership and therefore its frequency.