In December last year, Maputo’s municipal bus company published a quite astounding statistic. Its annual results for 2013, published in daily newspaper Noticias, showed it had only managed to transport half the number of passengers around Mozambique’s capital city as it had in 2012. It blamed this primarily on increased traffic congestion, which it said accounted for a 36.5 percent reduction in distance travelled over the year.
Maputo is a small, safe, and quiet city when compared to many African capitals. It has less than two million inhabitants and traffic moves relatively smoothly outside of well-defined rush hours.
But as the capital city of one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies, Maputo is seeing a rise in traffic congestion that is on track to see it emulate the gridlock that afflicts larger African cities like Nairobi, Lagos and Cairo.
According to Venancio Mondlane, runner-up in last year’s mayoral election in Maputo, “one of the biggest problems in the city of Maputo is that we have a lot of traffic.”
And the problem seems set to get worse before it gets better. In the words of José Forjaz, a Maputo architect and urban planner, “congestion is growing every day and it’s going to get to a time where there’s going to be a sort of paralysis of the centre of town.”
Bus transport a priority
When Filipe Nyusi took office as the new president of Mozambique on January 15 he promised more inclusive development and highlighted transport as a priority. At the time of writing, he was yet to appoint a new transport minister but in an interview with Maputo-based daily O Pais earlier this month, the outgoing minister Gabriel Muthisse promised “gigantic” although unspecified improvements to Maputo’s bus services “in the first few months of this year.”
But reading between the lines of what Muthisse has in mind, it does not sound like he’ll get to the root of the problem: traffic congestion.
Increasing numbers of Maputo’s well-off residents are using cars to commute. The new housing developments that crowd the city’s skyline promise integral multi-storey parking for residents. But those who cannot afford cars are left stuck on stationary buses, crammed into minibuses or onto the back of flat-bed trucks, or walking Maputo’s increasingly treacherous streets.
The streets are dangerous for pedestrians: speed limits are rarely if ever enforced, making crossing roads hazardous. And there are seemingly no restrictions on parking, meaning pavements are frequently entirely blocked by parked cars, pushing pedestrians into the roadway.
“Walking is disregarded absolutely; it’s very simple, because only the poor people walk – and who cares about poor people?” says Forjaz, the architect and urban planner.
The flatbed trucks that ferry commuters around Maputo are known as ‘My Love,’ because of the intimacy they force on their passengers who hold onto each other for safety. The persistence of the ‘My Love’ trucks in Maputo is, despite the name, the fact that makes Gabriel Muthisse saddest as he leaves office this month, he told O Pais.
The main problem the city bus company has, according to Muthisse, is that the fares it charges can’t cover the cost of running its services. “Even if the state bought 100 buses today,” he said, “if we keep charging 7 meticais (US$0.21) per passenger, there will not be the resources to repair a tyre or buy parts.”
More cars on the road?
If traffic congestion is to blame for an almost 40 percent drop in the running distance of Maputo’s buses, perhaps looking at ways to alleviate congestion would be a better place to start. Unfortunately, the government seems more enthusiastic about putting more cars on the road.
“They don’t seem to accept that there should be a policy of preventing cars from coming into the inner city, says Forjaz. “So more and more [are] being bought at ridiculously low prices, [and] petrol is subsidised”.
Two new car factories opened in Matola, a satellite city of Maputo, in the last quarter of last year. The minister of Industry and Commerce Armando Inroga celebrated this fact. He told O Pais in November: “the creation of an automotive industry is a new way of reducing the problem of transport in the country, particularly in big cities.”
Even if the new domestically produced cars benefit from not having to pay import duties, they will still be way out of reach for most Mozambicans who can’t tolerate bus fares above 7 meticais.
It remains to be seen what the government’s plan is to plug the gap between bus fares and their cost of operation. But one idea would be to charge for parking, city-wide. As a 2008 World Bank study of African cities suggests: “urban road funds could be supplemented by charges on parking for private cars or on urban developments that impose a measurable transport burden.”
Given it’s only the relatively wealthy who own cars, such charges would have the effect of a progressive tax and would be relatively easy to enforce by a police force armed with vehicle clamps. It might also distract the police from the random spot-checks they do of drivers’ documents, which in turn exacerbate congestion. And if the revenue was spent on improved bus provision, drivers without a proper place to park might be happy to go back to taking the bus: a more sustainable solution than rushing headlong into mass car ownership.
Tom Bowker is a journalist based in Mozambique, tracking the country’s economy and politics for Bloomberg News and other outlets. His blog is at http://mozambiquerising.
Main photo: Pedestrians are pushed into the road by cars parked outside Maputo’s central hospital. Tom Bowker.
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