#3 Makeshift pandemic response

A tale of regulatory failure

Hey there, I hope this email finds you safe and healthy whether you are working from home, under lockdown, in quarantine, or are in essential services. Hang in there.

Let’s take a break from cataloging innovations in informal transportation and let’s address this pandemic of biblical proportions.

I wrote the op-ed below for New CitiesWhen a Pandemic Goes Viral series. The series is about:

…watching the pandemic’s effects on mobility, public space, community, and “social distancing” in real-time. While it is challenging to cut through people’s fears at this early stage, it is crucial to reflect on the impacts this crisis will have on urban life-as-a-we-know-it, the weaknesses of our governance, healthcare, and infrastructure systems, and the likely aftermath and what we can learn from it.

Here it is with some minor tweaks.

Makeshift pandemic policies for makeshift mobility

As concerned governments around the world impose emergency measures to flatten the curve and slow down this pandemic, public transportation struggles. It needs to fulfill its central role of keeping cities connected but avoid serving as a convenient vector for the virus.

To reduce contact, many transit agencies have suspended fares and changed boarding procedures. They have mobilized their workforce to sanitize their fleets each night. They are doing this all while ridership collapses tanking their already meager revenues from the farebox. US transit agencies are petitioning the federal government for billions of dollars to keep their trains and buses running.

For cities dependent on informal transportation, no such options are available. Trotros and danfos usually don’t have back doors. All transactions are in cash. There is no evening workforce that can sanitize the vehicles. There is also no centralized control.

City and national governments struggle to impose any meaningful policies to effect social distancing. The measures they enacted feel as makeshift as the mobility itself:

Delhi started sanitising auto rickshaws and taxis, a mammoth undertaking to cover the nearly 100,000 auto rickshaws that serve the Indian capital.

Lagos required all danfo drivers to wear gloves and masks as did San Salvador for their collectivos. In both cities, compliance was less than spotty. It was not even clear how compliance would be confirmed except through checkpoints. Checkpoints, which of course, risked new nodes and connection points for the virus.

Requiring gloves and masks also potentially draw supplies away from frontline health services. Gloves aside, cash fares provide another vector for the virus.

Nairobi prescribed arbitrary reductions in passenger loads for matatus, ordering

14-seater matatus to carry a maximum of eight passengers...Twenty-five seater buses will carry 15 ...Vehicles that carry more than 30 should carry 60 per cent less.”

Predictably, this was largely ignored even as matatu associations threatened to raise fares to make up lost income from the prescribed shortfalls.

Operators of makeshift mobility have every incentive to continue running their services. The precarity of the informal economy runs on a daily cycle.

Drivers and conductors (and vehicle owners) depend on fares for their daily income. Daily income which comes as cash. Kenya at least has M-pesa and can quickly shift to contactless payment. Other cities don’t have that mobile banking infrastructure.

For many cities, it is easier to issue a blanket ban on operating makeshift mobility.

The Philippines issued a lockdown on the main island of Luzon and banned all public transportation while still allowing private vehicle use in the megacity of Metro Manila. But leaders failed to provide public alternatives and, unsurprisingly, this led to chaos on the streets. (Strongman Duterte even had a public spat with a popular young mayor who dared to use tricycles to ferry the sick and frontline health and government response workers.)

At least 75 cities in India are also moving to lockdown - and banning cabs, taxis and auto rickshaws. Unlike Metro Manila, at least the Indian cities are also banning private vehicles, spreading the pain of immobility to the upper middle class and the elite.

The problem, of course, is that cities already struggle to regulate informal transportation. While these privately provided public mobility services allowed governments to postpone real investments in transit, they also forwent any substantial control on the quality and control of the services. 

The only regulatory levers cities deployed to govern informal transit are prescribed routes, fare caps, traffic rules, and, for some cities, vehicle colors. The rest of the dynamics of the service were given over to hyper competition. Pandemic or not, commuters have always had very few protections.

This laissez-faire approach that served cities in global south well in-terms of not having to make substantial infrastructure investments has also excused them from providing (or indeed having the institutional setups to provide) economic safety nets for makeshift mobility. While commuters will feel the pain of a collapsed urban mobility system, governments can continue their disinterest and disinvestment.
(Uttar-Pradesh, a state in India run by avowed socialists, has at least promised to compensate informal workers including cycle and auto rickshaw drivers. I have yet to see any other city or state follow suit.)

The irony is that while the government owned transit agencies in the global north will need cash infusions to rebuild their services after the world recovers from this pandemic, cities in the global south that are dependent on informal transportation will find it terribly easy to regrow the same hypercompetitive makeshift mobility systems that they have now.

The virus is revealing how incompetent regimes and state disinvestment fail in the face of pandemics. Sadly, this marries well with the mobility that grew out of government neglect of urban transportation. There has to be a better way.

Late break—from Viet Nam

It seemed interesting to me that the four Asian countries that appeared to be handling this well—Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan—all have extensive and efficient formal transportation systems, and NO informal transport. But then I remembered Viet Nam. They’ve been held up as a model for an effective response.

I asked Alta Plannings’ Fred Young, who is in Ho Chi Min City, how things were over there. Apparently very well. The MOH has sent out clear guidelines for drivers of xe oms (motorbike taxis) and cyclos that include daily hygiene regimen - like disinfecting your vehicle and making sure to change clothes before going home. It also says (via google translate):

if the driver of the vehicle or the passenger shows signs of fever, cough, shortness of breath, it is necessary to notify the management unit and notify the health agency (via the hotline), to the facility. nearest medical service for timely consultation, examination and treatment. Immediately after returning passengers, the driver performs car disinfection and personal hygiene.

GoViet, one of the local ride hail operators, has even set up a special health insurance package for its member drivers. Which is amazing!

Fred continued, “Ellen and I hailed a taxi on the street earlier this week. Before any exchange of words, the driver immediately offered us a squirt of alcohol disinfectant gel for our hands. He was also wearing a mask (as is the norm these days).”

Thanks, Fred, for the on-the-ground report. Stay safe!

How are things going in your city?

A teaser on regulatory levers

I’ll leave you with this graph from Intellecap’s 2012 research on informal transportation. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory but promise to discuss it more in the next issue.

I hope to catch you in two weeks, hopefully in improving conditions. Meanwhile, stay home and save lives. And click on the button below to share this newsletter:

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I’m Benjie de la Peña, a transport geek and urban nerd. I live in Seattle, currently under the Governor’s Stay at Home order, with my wife, two kids, and two cats. My cats think our being at home means they can ask for food anytime. (Anytime!) I also think a lot about strategic design, institutional shifts, and innovation. I believe makeshift mobility could be the single greatest lever to decarbonize the urban transport sector -but only if we can organize.