“In Denmark, it is people who wait for the bus; not the bus that waits for people.”
The revelation above comes from a Zambian colleague who recently made her first international trip. I found the expression to be incredibly eloquent and succinct; even though I later noticed a flaw in the rationale (see below).
For public transport riders in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan etc. – places where the bus does not wait for people – the operating practices of buses in Lusaka seems more humane, more rider-centred. This would be misleading; in fact, the operating principles are everything but rider-centred.
The Lusakan baseline that my colleague should have used is the following:
People wait in the bus as the bus waits for people.
Now back in Lusaka, I have quickly re-acquainted myself with some of the chronic frustrations of this city’s public transport “network.” Here are a few of my favourites in the past 2 weeks, each one showing a failed solution to a previous problem.
1. Location, direction & time: far end of Zambezi Road, town-bound, morning rush hour
Issue: immobile buses speckled at 50m intervals, each with 4-5 passengers
Explanation: with no station in this area, there’s no central loading point. Instead of one bus quickly filling with waiting riders and then heading onward, each driver-conductor duo stakes its claim at the mouth of an alleyway and tries to steer the slowly emerging riders onto its isolated monopoly.
2. Location, direction & time: University Teaching Hospital (UTH), Ng’ombe-Roma “shortcut route”, 14:00
Issue: more than one hour to fill the bus
Explanation: there are two more conventional routes that I could have taken to travel home. The first is the traditional Lusaka-style “head to town, then head out again” radial pattern that involves the traffic and chaos of the big central stations. The now established alternative is to start off on one of the many Mutendere-bound buses that fills on Nationalist Road, in front from UTH. This alternative involves two transfers (Mass Media and Zambezi Corner) in order to complete the journey to Ng’ombe. I have few problems with the double-transfer; the transfer points are sane and the waits manageable, and I really appreciate avoiding the trip downtown. The disadvantage of the “Tendere!” buses is that they load like those on outer-Zambezi Road: instead of one bus filling and leaving, many are parked along the road, not filling, and not going anywhere.
The uncertainty of knowing if/when enough people will come to allow a departure, and the false advertisement of the conductors, combine to make me squirrelly. To avoid that scenario on a Mutendere bus, I opted to board an Ng’ombe-Roma “shortcut” bus in UTH station. There were 6 people in the vehicle and it was an off-peak time. I was taking my chances that it would fill.
By the 40-minute mark I regretted my decision. Were I not invested in the sunk costs of the operation, and curious about timing the departure, I would have bailed for one of the conventional routes. The experience has caused me to increase my threshold for boarding a “shortcut” bus at UTH station: minimum 10 riders seated. I wish I would have established those objective standards last week.
3. Location, direction & time: Showgrounds (i.e., Manda Hill), town-bound, 11:30
Issue: call boys blocking me from taking the fastest option
Explanation: this situation could benefit from a more-detailed explanation, since it opened my eyes to an aspect of the bus stop economy that I had never noticed: downstream call boys that block entry to buses that haven’t paid the call boys at the stop itself.
The gist of the situation is that I did not want to walk upstream to the stop and sit on a mostly-empty big bus as the call boys tried to push riders onto it against their will. For that reason, I tried to quickly board a bus that had already left the stop. Long story made short: it didn’t work.
All of the above situations reinforce feelings of hopelessness as a Lusaka public transport rider
And these feelings of hopelessness must be addressed – at very least through strategies that riders can use to claim some agency and contribute to a better system. Public transport need not be based on the principle that people wait on the bus as the bus waits for people. And yet, many of the incentivizing forces in Lusaka support the entrenchment of that status quo.
In the good news category: I’ve ridden nearly every day for two weeks and have not been in a single fare dispute. That is outright amazing.