Access to mobility for slum dwellers with easy low-cost solutions

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Photo: Scott Wallace / World Bank

If we had a magic wand to quickly ease the daily commute of millions of people from home-to-work, particularly in developing countries, we would certainly use it as much as we could.  Unfortunately, we often struggle to find quick solutions and end up with big projects which take very long to come to fruition.

Although big projects are often justified for economic efficiencies and greater impact, aren’t there any solutions that might quickly make that daily commute more accessible, affordable and acceptable?  Note that accessibility is just one of the factors that make travel easier to reach jobs, education, health and leisure facilities. Transport also must be affordable to low-income users   and also frequent and acceptable in the sense of comfort and safety. This is not the case in many poor emerging countries where daily commute can be an ordeal that might affect the productivity of workers who must worry to get to their jobs and return home safely.

So, if we really want to shrink the urban mobility gap between developed and emerging countries, we need to be more creative and even introduce new information and communication technologies (ICT) into existing transport systems while bigger and more expensive infrastructure is being built.  That way we can positively impact one generation of users while the big projects are being implemented.
In fact, while we prepare major projects which focus on reorganization of major bus routes, building new busways or revitalizing railways and/or building subways, there are generations of slum dwellers who cannot even access these future improvements because their “accessibility” to any type of public transport is very limited.

My main point is that countries need to launch an unsophisticated major initiative to ease the pain of daily, poor commuters.  They cannot wait while big projects are being discussed, planned and often discarded.  That way, in the 4-8 years that countries are taking to build their Bus Rapid Transit systems, railways and metros, their population may improve quickly its accessibility, affordability and acceptability of urban transport, and at a low cost for government. 
I remember that in Brazil, for example, in the 1970s, a combination of a paved road program serving the slums (PROPAV), and better and easier accesses to sheltered bus stops with lighting to decrease crime, facilitated the arrival of minibuses to poor areas where they couldn’t go before, particularly in the rainy season.  This program was highly successful up to a certain demand level and, without major delays, facilitated the commute of millions of daily users, either door-to-door or to a major trunk system. 

Imagine now the same minibuses outfitted with more emission-efficient engines, with ICT to indicate arrival at bus stops and card readers to facilitate the fare collection and integration of these feeder systems with the main trunk systems. The impact would be, in my opinion, an increase in accessibility but also in acceptability by increasing commuters’ comfort and safety.  And all that in a short period of time and at a low cost.

​Critics might say that these solutions which are road-based will add to congestion rather than facilitating mobility.  There is some truth to that. But it could be argued that modernization of some existing transport systems through new ICT technologies may buy time while the big projects are being built.  And even after the trunk corridors are built easier access to them will beef up ridership.  Countries cannot allow generations to suffer due to lack of access to jobs and services, while the big projects are being discussed.

Because loans to municipalities are not always easy, my proposal is that we test this new approach in a country willing to do it with national funds. It will be based on the program that was successful in Brazil but incorporating in it all the technological advances that are today available to make the commute more accessible. 

There are of course institutional obstacles to be overcome, mainly to bring together the minibus owners, which are often linked to strong political forces or to shady interests.  Some good planning will be required to make the accessibility and acceptability more reliable.  Also, a concerted effort of government and trunk operators might be required to ensure that affordability is not an issue.

In conclusion, if one looks at existing modes of transport in some emerging countries and tries to modernize them with new ICT technologies, it will be possible to provide an improvement of level-of-service to the users in a shorter period of time and therefore benefit more quickly the bottom 40% of the population. This, while the big projects are being properly planned and implemented, will help decrease the huge mobility gap between developing and developed countries. 

What do you think about this idea? Do you think it can work?


Jorge Rebelo

Mass Transit and Freight Logistics Consultant

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