A question for Lusaka public transport riders: What are good ways to deal with “rational stupidity”?

Hmmm, there’s a bus that will not move until it’s full. Not tempting. Oh look, here’s another bus that seems like it will pick me up and go. Wow, these guys are in a rush. That’s why: they’re racing another bus. This is stupid. As soon as they pull over to pick up that lady I’m going to get off; I don’t care where I drop, I just don’t want to die today.”

The text above is a condensed play-by-play of my thoughts on a recent morning at a transfer point named “Friday’s Corner.” I was trying to strategize the most efficient way to make the final leg of my journey from Kalundu to St. Mary’s; the stretch from Friday’s Corner to St. Mary’s is a particular weak link in making this trip. Although I face predictable frustrations at this exact site, it is representative of multiple problems that happen in many locations city-wide.

Because I find the name catchy, I have opted to present these problems as rational stupidity. This is, of course, an oxymoron. A more accurate description of the issue might be as follows: individual decisions that bus drivers make to increase revenue on-the-spot, at the expense of making the Lusaka’s minibuses dysfunctional and dangerous for all involved.

In this post, I describe my experiences with rational stupidity at Friday’s Corner, including my reaction to these. I believe that the way that I reacted was not the worst; but nor was it the best. And this is why I am reaching out to other riders, trying to identify ways that we can all deal with these situations better.

 

Friday’s Corner: a busy mid-route transfer point

Whatever the virtues of Lusaka’s minibus system, these do not contribute to great travel options from Friday’s Corner. The diagram below shows the layout of Friday’s and the routes passing through it.

Friday s Corner-001

Friday s Corner-002

The situation of poor travel options results from this combination of factors:

  1. Buses that begin their trip at the start of the route do not leave Mutendere Station until full.

Rationale: drivers pay station fees and are guaranteed customers at the station, since only one bus can fill at a time.

Implication: there is little room to take on more riders in the first part of the route.

  1. There are many riders wanting to travel from Friday’s Corner towards Chilenje, so empty buses park at Friday’s Corner and remain stationary until they are filled by the corner’s call boys shepherding riders.

Rationale: Friday’s serves as a de facto mini-station, but with less volume than a real station.

Implication: these buses fill very slowly.

  1. Other buses begin their trip along the route, after Mutendere, and “scour” the remaining stops (and side-streets).

Rationale: eventually, they will find enough riders to make the trip worthwhile.

Implication: drivers do all sorts of stupid things to find riders; instead of leaving at regular intervals and driving the route, they are inclined to stop or deviate any time they see a potential passenger or try to scoop passengers from competing buses by racing in front of them.

The end result is that there are often plenty of buses around Friday’s Corner, but there is no guarantee when any one of these will move in the line of travel.

Friday s Corner-003

A clearer account of what happened to me

Traveling eastbound on Alick Nkhata Road (from Mass Media/Kalingalinga), I dropped at Friday’s Corner to head south. Not seeing a nearly-full Chilenje bus in the Petroda filling station, I crossed the road to check if the southbound bus parked at the roadside was sufficiently full to leave soon. Before I got there, two fast-moving buses came from the direction of Mutendere and turned south.

It seemed to me that they were serious about driving the route, so I boarded one of these buses. I did not even have time to sit down before my bus sped off. A second later, I realized why: the other bus was trying to overtake us. The two buses raced each other at high speed until the other bus had to break suddenly to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming truck.

Having “won the race,” my bus pulled over so that the conductor could chase after a woman walking along the side of the road. When he left the door, I exited to the street, without ever having paid my fare.

The conductor looked at me with confusion, asking “we go?” My answer was “No. Not with you. I’m not riding in your bus any more.”

The conductor shrugged his shoulders and began is call of “Cheeelenjaaay!” as me and the bus stood awkwardly stationary next to each other for a good 30 seconds. The bus then advanced 50m to repeat the same exercise at the corner for another minute. I slowly walked behind, looking for another bus to pass by with some room.

Of course, a bus with room did not come: the “system” of Lusaka minibuses provides little incentive to merely drive the route and pick up passengers.

I continued to walk south, along Kudu and then Bishops Roads. After a few minutes, the bus that had been filling at the roadside passed, filled with the passengers who boarded at Friday’s, none of whom had dropped to make space for new riders. I was nearly at the Kabulonga traffic lights when a bus with space passed; I never asked if this bus had started off from Mutendere, had filled at Friday’s, or had been scouring for passengers, but any one of the above is possible at that point of the route. Since I was headed to St. Mary’s, I had already walked more than half of the distance to my destination and I considered finishing the trip on foot, out of protest to Lusaka’s minibuses and its rationally stupid system.

I re-considered. It was hot and beginning to sweat through my shirt; at that particular moment, showing up late and wet was too high a price to pay to complete my protest and save 5 kwacha.

 

What is to be learned from this case?

To be honest, I do not know the answer to that question.

It is possible that the answer is once again that “Lusaka minibuses do not work for people expecting to travel on a schedule, with dignity, or assurances of safety.” That conclusion is fair, but it is also a little more defeatist than I am willing to accept.

On a more optimistic note, we might also conclude that my initial protest (leaving the bus that was driving dangerously) might have been partially effective: after I got off, the driver opted for a “slow scour” approach to finding riders instead of racing. As a rider, a slow scour is frustrating for its complete lack of consideration of riders’ time. By contrast, a race could end in tragedy. I dislike both of these options, but the former is admittedly better than the latter.

In the end, I would have arrived at my destination faster if I had boarded the bus that was filling at the roadside, yet this supports a practice that I find to be absolute non-sense. And only the day before I found myself in that same bus, cursing that I could have walked to my destination in the 15 minutes it took us to fill (I was only headed to Kabulonga that day).

I suppose that the clearest lesson from the experience is to avoid buses that are racing. I could have identified what was happening in advance, at which point I would have refused boarding the racing buses and checked the one filling at the roadside.

As much as that lesson is relevant, it seems highly insufficient. Really, the ways that we should be addressing this problem are organizational and political. I fully endorse the folks who are pursuing those avenues – in the meantime, relevant micro-responses to the daily struggle are at least small steps forward.

Accordingly, I am very open to whatever micro-solutions that other riders can offer.

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