Getting to those hard-to-reach places

On a recent visit to Lusaka I got in touch with a friend from Mongu who was staying with her family members. My primary goal was to visit my friend, although a close secondary goal was to have an excuse to travel to a part of Lusaka that I do not know well. I was surprised to learn my friend was staying in an area that I did not know at all. I did not even know that places that she was using as reference points to locate it. And I was somewhat dismayed when she said that I would need to be picked up since “there is no reliable transport.” Although I accepted the offer to be picked up (as it was presented as the only possibility) I had a keen eye to observing the transportation situation en route.

It turns out that the area in question is called “Meanwood.” The route that we took had us crest a ridge, from which point I was shocked to see the massive sprawling subdivision of walls and gates that is Meanwood. It seems to occupy an entire valley. As we were bouncing our way along the area’s tracks in the SUV driven by my friend’s family member she described how there were not yet schools in the area and pointed out the “only shop”, essentially a large katemba (stand) which was still a few kilometres from their home. Apparently she saw this soul-killing urban form with a different energy than I did, asking expectantly “since you’ve been here a while, you don’t want to buy a plot?” That experience was my clearest one to date of what I will call the upper middle class “Lusaka Dream”: stockading a plot of land with a wall and in it placing a custom-built house to create a sense of individualized isolation…thereby requiring extensive automobile travel to do anything. For better or worse, at that stage I did not have the energy to diplomatically describe the extent to which I thought that was a horrible idea; I just politely replied “not really.”

The positive of the trip there was that I did learn about the (unreliable) public transport of the area. I could have taken a minibus to the end of the tarred road, to a place called “Mitumbe.” From there I could have taken a taxi. Sure enough, Mitumbe had the look of a minibus terminal station, with a few buses filling (likely headed “to town” but no one would tell me which central station they operated from), and a taxi rank.

In hindsight I am particularly disappointed that my friend and her family did not assist me to arrive independently as it would have been a great learning experience to negotiate the taxi situation to travel the last few miles. In Mongu I have increasingly refused to take individually booked taxis and am having reasonable success at stimulating drivers to offer me some sort of shared taxi arrangement at a reduced rate (sometimes bus fare, if I’m going to a highly frequented place, but more often at about ¼ of the booked taxi fare).

Indeed, in some places where I have lived, the shared taxi arrangement is a common one. In Port-au-Prince (Haiti) there are “public taxis”, differentiated from the private kind by way of a red ribbon tied to the rear view mirror, that travel in flexible and winding ways according to the whims of passengers. The driver will accept one passenger going to a given destination and pick others up on the way if they are headed somewhere near to the first. There is one fare for central locations – defined by “limits” that everyone seems to know – and a higher fare for trips that extend outside the boundaries. I found that this system worked well, especially to connect mixed-use medium-density areas to bus lines, at a reasonable compromise of speed and price (maybe half the speed of a booked taxi, but at 1/5 the price; which was still 2-4x that of a typical single-ride bus fare). In Cameroon a very similar situation was THE main form of public transport, instead of being a complement to a backbone network of buses. Apparently, this situation arises from national policy that on one hand bans minibus operation, and on the other provides no support to urban mass transit.

In some ways we may already have flexible route shared taxi arrangements in Zambia, as I am discovering that I can create them in some circumstances in Mongu, and such things MUST exist, at very least in the outbound direction, at places like Mitumbe. In other ways I have confirmed we do not: in the five months I lived on a quiet side street in Roma I was never able to convince the drivers of the taxi rank in front of my house to offer any sort of shared arrangement that would speed either the 15-minute walk to the nearest stop, or the 30 minute+ trip to Arcades for the nearest hub, at any sort of reasonable price. Clearly this is an instance where the current arrangement is insufficient to meet the transportation needs of the city.

But why is this so? In my recent reading of a thesis on the history of public transport in Lusaka there is extensive coverage of “six-seater taxis” during the 1970s and 1980s, showing that there is precedence for the vehicle type, but not describing the network role of these vehicles. It appears that something has changed since that time – be it “market forces” in our supposedly free market public transport system; be it legislation; be it a lack of familiarity with the idea as I have described it.

There is plenty of reason to believe that that thoughtless or oppressive restrictive legislation is a part of this equation. Just this week there was a letter to the editor supporting a political candidate’s proposal that buses with less than 32 seats be banned (see: the featured letter in “The Post”, Aug 4). The writer did not take the time to explain the position or the reasons for supporting it, but there was no indication that the logic was a supported-rationalization of the transport system akin to what has been recently proposed by ZIPAR; in his lack of description it appeared that it was obvious that minibuses were obstructions (for people who travel in private automobiles) that must be removed, thereby “improving” travel. This issue of ‘what should be allowed’ brings us back to Meanwood, and other parts of Lusaka that are presumably similar to it.

Does a form of public transport exist to allow some form of reasonable and affordable access from the route terminal at Mitumbe? According to my small sample of residents of Meanwood, this question is irrelevant, since every trip to and from home for themselves and their children involves an automobile. Indeed, the presence of public transport vehicles could be seen as a nuisance, due to their being “in the way.” I somehow suspect that the scenario is different, however, for the hundreds of domestic servants in the area – regardless of whether they are commuters (who necessarily would have to come from a far distance) or live-ins (who would occasionally need to go places). Should there be a form of public transport, I am sure that these people are largely aware of it. That’s fair enough, but what of the rest of us who want to access this part of the city but are unable or unwilling to drive a private car?

And here lies the central purpose of this blog – albeit with a twist. Should there have been internet-accessible information about how to travel to my friend’s family’s home I might have been able to reach it independently (and not have been stuck waiting at Munali for a ride there, or sitting uncomfortably in the living room for two hours before getting a ride out). On the other hand, what if the currently functioning form of public transport exists precisely because it is underground relative to the restrictive gaze of the authorities and middle-class political conversation?

Answering that question might be even more difficult than is arriving at the isolated location that is Meanwood.

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