Analysis: Time for Maputo to tackle traffic congestion

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.

In Maputo parked cars completely block pavements and make pedestrians’ lives more dangerous. Tom Bowker.

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 Twitter @TomBowk

Main photo: Pedestrians are pushed into the road by cars parked outside Maputo’s central hospital. Tom Bowker.


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3 Responses to “Analysis: Time for Maputo to tackle traffic congestion”

  1. Analysis: Time for Maputo to tackle traffic con...

    […] 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.  […]

    • Anon Moss

      I really appreciate this article Mr Bowker, not only because of its accurate depiction of traffic congestion in Maputo city, but also because of the difficulty there seems to be for residents in Maputo, such as myself, to hear about important issues such as this one discussed with any lasting traction.
      I agree that poorer city dwellers rely partly or fully on public transport. This is true of any city in the world, especially if it is quicker and more convenient to use private cars. Once public transport is as quick and convenient to use as private cars, the use of cars will become much less appealing, especially with the introduction of city wide congestion fees for the use of cars within the city centre, and parking fees as you mentioned. It would be very difficult to convince anyone that can afford to buy and use a car in Maputo not to do so, as the alternatives are seldom punctual, are inconvenient and are poorly organised, and it would be equally difficult to convince car owners that congestion fees and parking fees are just in a city where the alternative transport is difficult to use at the best of times. The main alternative I refer to is the minibus, or Chapa, whose role is a crucial one. I firmly believe the city of Maputo would grind to a halt without them, as they cover the majority of demand for collective transport in Maputo. But chapas are inefficient as they only hold around 10-15 customers when full, in comparison to public-run buses, the EMTPM buses, which can allow up to 8 times that amount of passengers(at a guess). There are more and more chapas with the increase in demand, which has only exacerbated the issue of congestion. The city is packed with chapas today, and the problem can only be solved if the Government manages to claim the majority of demand coverage now claimed by the chapa industry. It is generally easier for chapas, as they are privately owned by individuals, and are relatively cheap to maintain (especially since most chapas are poorly maintained). In comparison, EMTPM has the challenge of procuring a fleet that can mirror the same service as thousands of independent chapa owners, bearing in mind our government budget is nowhere near large enough to cover such investment.
      Part of the solution, as I think was mentioned by Venancio Mondlane during his campaign, is not to buy more and more buses until the government has full coverage, but to acquire buses on competitive lease from private companies, at a much lower cost. This method has already been tried and tested by other city transport companies around the world, such as London’s Transport For London, which maintains a proportion of its fleet through competitive leasing of buses. This does mean putting more buses on the road, but for such a population as Maputo’s, it would be difficult for EMTPM to increase their coverage with their current fleet size.
      The other part of the solution is not to do with cars, but with drivers, specifically their lack of adherence to traffic rules which leads to frequent traffic jams throughout the city, particularly at intersections. Other, more economically developed countries have put in place electronic systems that deter people from acting in ways that can cause congestion, such as stopping in the middle of intersections and crossroads. It would be difficult to implement the same systems in Maputo, but I feel the police would be making better use of their time by pulling over cars that are found blocking intersections and causing jams, instead of randomly stopping cars for documentation checks.
      In short, it is also imperative that the government improve their marketing presence for public transport. The only way to convince people to switch to public EMTPM buses is through frequent marketing and awareness campaigns.

  2. Joaquín

    Thanks Tom, it is a good analisys what it happening in our city.
    I have only one objection. Putting the “traffic congestion” as a the core problem of the urban mobility issues we may be giving an alibi to politics, public transport technicians and private car supports. Could be an excuse to go on with the old transpor policy based on the slogan of seeking “greater capacity and fluidity to the streets and roads”. Further, could be harder in the future let exclusive tracks for public transport and the integration of BRT, because in the beginning the traffic jam of private vehicles will be increase. Their powerful users will defend that the City Council is not resolving the problem that we are already becoming as a main and legitimate traffic problem.

    Maputo still have the opportunity to be free of a massive traffics jams and occupation of all the public space by cars. That is already happening in most of the African emerging cities.
    It is the time to choose between have a car for a few people or urban quality life for all Maputo citizens.

    If the city citizens and council select for the second one, should face with “push and pull” policy against the collective imagination that puts the car as a symbol of individual progress. Also, have to improve the capacity and quality of Public and collective transport. Finally, ought start to thing about pedestrian and cyclist as a cheaper and more sustainable examples of transport and giving to them legitimacy, priorities and safety conditions.


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