“Invisible travelers”: 3 lessons from Freetown to transform urban transport—and your city

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Woman transporting wood on her motorcycle (Okada)
Woman transporting wood on her motorcycle (Okada) | Photo credit: Periye, WikiMedia Commons

How do you plan an urban transport system that leaves no one behind? Traditional urban transport planning has mainly focused on travel patterns of workers commuting to jobs. Although this is indeed important, large parts of the population—and especially vulnerable groups in African cities—end up being invisible in this kind of planning. We call this group the “invisible travelers.” Do you want to know what was Freetown’s approach to transform urban transport planning? Keep readingI

Almost three years ago, the government of Sierra Leone requested World Bank support to solve chronic traffic congestion that affected Freetown’s productivity. They also wanted to provide more dignified (as they expressed it) mobility for all citizens—where no one was left behind.

The task was not easy. To start with, there was minimal available information about the sector’s challenges. How to look for solutions when you don’t understand the problem? The government understood this and we discussed creative ways to move forward.

On the supply side, there wasn’t even a map of existing bus and minibus routes (how we addressed this scarcity of data is discussed here and here). On the demand side—the people’s side—we asked ourselves: what is citizens’ perspective about urban transport? What do they use? Why do they struggle to access jobs and social services? What is the perspective of vulnerable populations (women, people with disabilities, those with low income)?

In Sierra Leone, with the support of PPIAF and  the Mobility and Logistics Multi-donor Trust Fund, we brought this all together in a way that includes an ambitious reform of public transport: institutional and regulatory reforms, together with implementation of urban mobility infrastructure and service investments in key areas of the city.

There are three key lessons from this work:

Lesson #1: Disaggregated data capturing different groups’ mobility needs and constraints must be collected

To inform the design of an inclusive public transport system, the government surveyed approximately 2,000 citizens and held focus groups to capture needs, constraints, and perspective about urban mobility—with a significant focus on vulnerable populations.

Here are some observations:

  • When asked about main considerations when choosing to travel, men value journey time and reliability more than women, while women value safety and cost more.
  • Almost three times more women than men traveled with goods.
  • Women were twice as likely to travel accompanied by children or elderly people.
  • Women pay on average 8% more to travel because they must pay additional for their goods or they take several shorter trips.
  • Among women surveyed, 18% said they had been sexually harassed on public transport in Freetown. Interestingly, incidents of harassment weren’t distributed equally between types of transport. Minibuses (locally called poda-poda) have the most reported incidents (28% of women users), followed by shared taxis and motorcycles. Only 4% of women traveling by formal buses reported sexual harassment.
  • Among approximately 100 people identifying themselves as having a disability that impaired their mobility, on average they paid 10% more to travel than an average passenger; 38% said that large formal buses are either poor or very poor regarding accessibility.
  • For travelers with low incomes, we observed that cost matters most when choosing a mode of transport, while travelers with higher incomes care more about having a seat. 

Lesson #2: In order to transform data into impact, policymakers must plan a clear list of activities to integrate disaggregated groups’ perspective into the design of infrastructure services and policies

For data to actually inform policies, infrastructure, and services, it’s important to plan a clear list of documented activities.  In the case of Sierra Leone, the government included this list in its Stakeholder Engagement Plan. Examples of planned activities include safety audits of project infrastructure and surrounding areas, technical specification of buses that incorporate the needs of women traveling with family and goods, inclusive fare policies, and schedules that take into account off-peak needs. In Freetown, transition towards formal buses can also reduce the risk of sexual harassment. Similarly, the needs of people with disabilities are taken into account through accessibility audits that include areas surrounding stations and design of technical specifications for accessible buses.

Lesson #3: Don’t forget to include monitoring and feedback mechanisms

If you want to ensure planned activities are actually incorporated, include a clear monitoring framework—and remember that the users’ perspective is a very valuable measure of performance and can help identify areas of improvement.  In Sierra Leone, the government created two key indicators to monitor the implementation of an inclusive project. The first one measures users’ satisfaction—disaggregated by gender and including questions about reliability, safety, accessibility, comfort, customer service, and sexual harassment. The other indicator measures how many women change from informal to formal public transport services. This change is used as a proxy to measure progress on the reduction of sexual harassment risk, given that women are harassed five times less frequently in formal public transport.

In Sierra Leone, the Stakeholder Engagement Plan aims to close the feedback loop between government and citizens, which is critical for accountability, awareness, and improving project design. It includes plans for public consultation and disclosure to provide timely information about project activities and their potential impacts, as well as feedback and discussion opportunities to those groups. This feedback loop can be used as a way to pilot, improve, and scale up solutions that bring the views of stakeholders and citizens.  


After three years of intense work, Freetown has changed the paradigm in the planning of transport infrastructure and services—focusing first on the who rather than the what. They are now in the initial phase of implementation of this ambitious public transport reform. It will be a challenging process, but assuredly it will transform thousands of lives, especially those that need it most: the invisible travelers.



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This blog is managed by the Infrastructure Finance, PPPs & Guarantees Group of the World Bank. Learn more about our work here.


Bailo Diallo

West Africa Regional Portfolio Coordinator, PPIAF

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