Can mapping informal taxi networks help legitimize them?

In February Cape Town-based startup WhereIsMyTransport released a comprehensive map of Cape Town’s informal minibus taxi network, along with the open source data used to develop it. In addition to helping commuters navigate their city, the data on Cape Town’s informal taxi network is intended to represent the form of a seemingly chaotic system and contribute to the informal transport network’s integration into the city’s official transport infrastructure.

WhereIsMyTransport’s map of Cape Town’s taxi network is not the first of its kind. Similar projects have been started in Nairobi, Kenya and Cairo, Egypt. The Digital Matatus Project mapped Nairobi’s Matatu network and made the transit data available to the public. In Cairo Transport for Cairo has started the ambitious project of mapping Cairo’s entire public transport system including the informal microbus network and developing data for mobile routing apps — quite a task in a sprawling city of over 18 million residents.

All three of these projects expressed hopes that mapping the minibus, microbus and matatu networks would help city administrators to better integrate these informal transport networks—which are strikingly orderly and comprehensive when seen as a whole—into the city’s formal transport strategies. This raises the question: what would it mean to integrate an informal transport system into a city’s formal transport infrastructure? And secondly, what sort of relationship have cities had with these informal transport systems in the past?

For the most part city, administrators have not had a good relationship with informality in the transport sector. In Cape Town the informal taxi industry has managed to sustain itself under constant duress for decades. The taxi industry developed in response to the limited and ineffective government bus and train services of the 1960s, which were protected by government subsidies and a refusal to issue permits to small taxi operators. This forced taxis to operate illegally until 1988 when the industry was almost entirely deregulated and left to its own devices (Barrett 2003).

In spite of the fact that the taxi industry is now well recognised in South Africa and has a significant amount of political influence through the various taxi unions, taxis are still considered to be unsafe, chaotic and a source of congestion and pollution in cities. This has become the impetus for many of the state’s interventions into the system.

In Cape Town and Nairobi there have been attempts to ban smaller 14-seat minibuses and replace them with larger ones in the hope that this will reduce the number of vehicles on the road and reduce congestion. Parallel to this, in both cities there has also been a move toward a cashless payment system, which would be linked to a system to aid gathering data on routing and cash-flow. In Nairobi, resistance to matatus has gone as far as a ban—recently relaxed—on the artwork adorning the sides of the matatus. In all three cities informal taxis are tolerated while plans are made to rationalise and sanitise their operation.

Cairo seems to be the least amenable to recognising its microbus system as a legitimate transport solution—partly because a highly mobile population is seen to pose a threat to a new government trying to limit informal organising and renewed protests. What little research has focused on the microbus system has mostly been negative (Ramadan, 2014; UNDP 2010). Instead of thinking of ways of incorporating the informal transport network into the city’s transport strategy, plans are being floated for a new bus rapid transit system that is expected to replace the informal system.

What is disappointing about so many of these policy interventions—slow, troubled and controversial as they often are—is that they rely on the assumption that the nation state is still the most appropriate body to plan and manage the development of a system and that state bureaucracy and its various advisors are the only possible source of legitimate policy. Contrary to what the name might suggest, ‘informal’ systems are not ‘formless’. There is a distinct rationality and logic to informal systems, but it is a logic that falls outside of a certain set of rules and assumptions of how things should work.

Indeed, what makes informal taxi systems so effective is the very fact that they do lie outside these rules and logics. The taxis leave when they are full, don’t run to a schedule, there are many of them, competition is intense, and they respond very quickly to demand. Integrating the informal into the structure of the city is nothing more than maintaining an openness to a “plurality of form” within the urban environment (Hart 2015). Maybe, as Saskia Sassen suggests, informal systems meet the needs of the “expelled” that formal systems could never hope to meet because these groups of people and their needs are not visible to the formal state apparatus (Sassen 2015).

Perhaps the mapping of these informal networks is just what the taxi industries—and informal systems in general—need to get governments and municipalities to see them as legitimate forms of public transport with their own highly efficient logic and ability to self-regulate.


James Clacherty is an editorial intern with

Photo: The Eminem Bus in downtown Kigali, Rwanda. Graham Holliday (Flickr).

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