Working with informal transport

In many developing cities, access to high capacity public transport services is severely limited. Whilst growing use of private vehicles reduces the profitability of high capacity services, limited public investment in mass transit means that the quantity and quality of these services remains low. At the same time, regulations to control public transport vehicle licenses and route operations often limit profitability of formal provision. In this context, informal medium- or low-capacity vehicles form the predominant means of transport in developing cities. In Dakar, for example, informal minibuses are responsible for meeting over 80% of transport demands in the city. How governments approach these systems can play a decisive role in the productivity and liveability of cities.

Informal does not mean unorganised; there is tremendous variation in the scale and organisation of these services in developing cities. But what differentiates them from formal public transport is that they lack some of the necessary permits for operating legally. Limited enforcement of regulations means these services can fill the gap left by inadequate formal public transport.

Do existing informal transport systems help or hinder mobility in developing cities?

These informal transport systems provide essential means of mobility in developing cities. In addition to being a significant source of employment in many of these cities, such services can often offer better and more reliable services than existing formal transport systems. Because of their relatively smaller size when compared to high capacity buses, minibuses, taxis and motorbikes are relatively cheap to invest in; a 14-seater minibus in Nairobi, for example, costs almost 4 times less than a 35-seater bus10. These lower costs mean private operators can profitably supply these services in greater quantity and at lower fares. These vehicles can also travel almost anywhere where (even low quality) roads exist, and as such, are likely to be able to get commuters closer to their destinations.

However, these systems also come with their costs. In an effort to cut costs and improve profitability in highly competitive markets, informal vehicles are often poorly maintained, overcrowded and unsafe. Reckless driving means that in cities such as Douala, two-thirds of moto-taxi drivers have been victims of traffic accidents11. At the same time, as these vehicles are at best medium-capacity, large numbers of vehicles are required to provide mass transport. This, combined with their irregular stops, mean that these vehicles contribute significantly to traffic congestion in city centres. As passenger volumes rise above around 5,000 in each direction per hour, high capacity buses can become more cost effective when accounting for commuters’ time otherwise wasted in waiting for transport12.

Can regulation of informal services improve urban mobility?

In thinking about implementing effective regulations to improve existing informal transport services, it is important to distinguish between those that seek to improve the quality of these services, and those that seek to restrict their supply in particular areas:

  • Regulation to improve the quality of these services and cap fares can be beneficial for commuters using them – but this is by no means guaranteed. Any attempt to improve quality of services is liable to come at the cost of affordability, and any attempt to reduce fares is liable to be met with a deterioration in the quantity or quality of services.
  • Regulation to restrict the supply of these medium-capacity services on particular lanes in an effort to reduce congestion and improve financial sustainability of higher capacity buses can have significant public benefits in highly congested city centres. However, this is likely to face strong resistance from existing providers. At the same time, more expensive high-capacity buses are less appropriate for low-density, low-income areas that will not generate sufficient demand to cover costs of provision. Without subsidies on higher capacity transport modes, this is likely to increase transport expenses or travel time for commuters.

Any attempts at effective regulation rely on adequate enforcement capacity. Regulating informal transport, particularly when done in an effort to accommodate higher capacity transport modes, can be extremely difficult to implement due to strong resistance from existing operators. In many developing cities, however, this capacity to effectively monitor regulations is weak. In these cases, overly ambitious regulations that exceed capacity and undermine the rule of law can actually be more damaging than having no regulations at all.

Overcoming resistance to regulation

Successful experiences from a number of cities suggest that in many cases, the best way for governments to improve public transport services is to work with informal providers to combine regulation with finance, or access to private finance, to maintain and improve vehicles. For example, expanding access to new vehicles, credit and training to collectives of informal private operators in Dakar, Senegal, has allowed for renovation and route regulation of around a fifth of minibuses in the city between 2005-200813. In Lagos and Accra, governments provided the finance or financial guarantees that allowed existing informal vehicle owners to form cooperatives and jointly invest in higher capacity buses. To ensure these high capacity buses were financially sustainable, financial support was combined with regulation to enforce exclusive use of particular routes. Public transport needs were met and congestion was reduced while maintaining crucial political support for the introduction of higher capacity buses. Lower capacity services then complemented formal transport services by providing feeder services from low density areas to higher capacity systems in denser areas.

Discussion and compromise with existing operators is key to limiting resistance to the introduction of high capacity systems to replace existing vehicles. This crucially includes providing employment opportunities in new systems; in Johannesburg, for example, minibus taxi operators were included in negotiations on the new bus rapid transport (BRT) from the start, allowing them to become drivers and shareholders in the new system and limiting resistance14.

… in many cases, the best way for governments to improve public transport services is to work with informal providers to combine regulation with finance, or access to private finance, to maintain and improve vehicles.


  • 10 Ajay Kumar and Fanny Barrett, ‘Stuck in Traffic: Urban Transport in Africa’, Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic (World Bank and SSATP, 2008).
  • 11 Ajay Kumar, ‘Understanding the Emerging Role of Motorcycles in African Cities: A Political Economy Perspective’ (Sub-Saharan Africa Transport Policy Program, 2011).
  • 12 Robert B. Cervero, ‘Informal Transport in the Developing World’ (UN-HABITAT, 2000).
  • 13 Ajay Kumar and Christian Diou, ‘The Dakar Bus Renewal Scheme: Before and After’ (Sub-Saharan Africa Transport Policy Program, 2010).
  • 14 Lily Kuo and Lily Kuo, ‘How a Public Bus System in Johannesburg Saved South Africa $890 Million’, Quartz (blog), accessed 25 April 2017,