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Dar es Salaam’s bus rapid transit: why it’s been a long, bumpy ride

INFRASTRUCTURE projects are often subject to political aspirations. But when they are not realised as promised or their costs multiply over the years, the projects turn into public controversies. After a while, the aspirations, promises and controversies settle as the infrastructure system becomes an integral part of the environment and society.

Dar es Salaam Bus Rapid Transit is such a project. It was planned to improve urban transport by gradually replacing minibuses in Tanzania’s largest city.

MALVE JACOBSEN, Post-doctoral researcher, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz

Various challenges, like unclear construction plans, residents’ protests and unexpected costs, led to several years of delay in constructing and implementing the transport system. Planning started in the early 2000s and it began to operate in 2016.

One out of six construction phases is complete, offering more than 300,000 trips daily. The second phase is under construction and funding has been secured for its third to fifth phases. Phase six is still under discussion.

My research shows how the Dar es Salaam Bus Rapid Transit is both political and deeply embedded into global and local social structures. It also looks at what these entanglements mean for the implementation of a bus rapid transit model in a specific context.

Despite concrete plans and binding contracts that framed the infrastructural project over decades, local social and political conditions still shape its development.

Pioneer project

This transport project has played a central role in Tanzania’s national politics. The government set a strong focus on infrastructural development, and the project served as a pioneer of urban transport innovations and large infrastructure systems. It was mainly promoted by the late President John Magufuli while he served as minister for works.

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Dar es Salaam experiences heavy congestion. Minibuses, called “daladala”, are the main mode of urban transport. They are reliable and efficient, but they cannot handle the city’s rapid population growth. This is mainly because they do not have their own physical infrastructure like the rail and bus rapid transit systems do.

A bus rapid transit system has designated lanes and high-capacity buses that call at stations every few minutes. It also features off-board fare collection, enclosed stations and access for pedestrians and cycles. Compared to rail-based systems, the rapid bus transit is expected to be faster and cheaper in terms of planning, construction and operation.

Dar’s bus rapid transit system is beset by lack of operational schedules and infrastructure delays but is in high demand.

Policymakers – international NGOs, development corporations and consultancies, local governments and transport businesses – say that these bus systems make for high-quality transport available to the people. They have become a trend in cities of the global South for the last two decades. The Transmilenio system of Bogotá was used as a model of the concept that has been spreading to the African continent.

In 2003, international consultants picked Dar es Salaam’s system as the best practice model for urban Africa. Cities like Addis Ababa, Kampala and Nairobi are following suit, trying the Dar es Salaam model. Professional and personal networks around former Bogotá mayor Enrique Penalosa and the New York-headquartered Institute for Transportation and Development Policy have made the Tanzanian metropolis the point of reference for African technocrats instead of South African cities, which implemented the Transmilenio bus rapid transit model earlier.

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But there is no guarantee that African cities will learn better from Dar es Salaam than they would from a Latin American or Asian city. Contexts like the attitude towards public-private partnerships or the structure and political power of the minibus industry differ from city to city, between and within continents.

Plans and reality

Since it began, Dar es Salaam’s project has been under pressure to succeed and act as a model. Its promoters tend to portray it as the way it was planned rather than how it actually operates.

On the ground, the system is grappling with overcrowded buses, lack of operational schedules and long delays in constructing and operating bus corridors and stations. The delays and changes of plans point to controversies and power struggles.

Controversies are nothing unusual in large-scale planning processes. They often have productive moments as they reveal uncertainties and enable renegotiation.

In contrast to the strong political will at international and national levels, not all Tanzanian politicians are in favour of the project. Some would have preferred a rail-based solution while others are part of the minibus industry.

In addition, the largest bus company — the state-controlled Shirika la Usafiri Dar es Salaam (UDA) — has been vying for a monopoly. The bus company tried to frustrate the contract between the Tanzanian government and the World Bank, which financed the first phase of the project. Under the agreement, the system was to run through a public-private partnership consortium, which would consist of Tanzanians and international operators.

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The bus company used three tactics to render the international partnership impossible:

  • It merged with the Dar es Salaam Commuter Bus Owners Association to form a new company: UDA Rapid Transit.
  • It lobbied politicians to support its joint venture as the interim operator of the rapid transit system pending the international public private partnership procurement.
  • It made huge investments that were inconsistent with its status as an interim operator. It installed an automated fare collection system and bought more than 200 buses. The investments made it appear irreplaceable.

To ensure that the only available option for rapid transit operations did not become insolvent, the UDA Rapid Transit was allowed to earn revenue from its buses and fare collection system.

UDA Rapid Transit continues to be the single operator of the Dar es Salaam Rapid Transit System. Whether other operators might come on board in future phases is still uncertain.

Social practice, personal relations and political negotiations direct the system’s development. Infrastructure projects are political, controversial and permanently under transformation. They tell us about global models, national development agendas and sociopolitical negotiations on the ground.

By The African Mirror