East Africa’s Motorcycle Taxis Could Work In America

It’s a scene that could appear in any number of emerging markets around the world: dusty chaotic roads filled with cars, busses into near gridlock at a major intersection. Yet, while many drivers blare their horns in a universal sign of frustration, nimble motorcycle taxis pick their way through traffic. Some of their passengers are students. Others are office ladies finished with work for the day who sit side-saddle, as is the custom in Uganda.

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Ugandan motorcycle taxis, or boda-bodas, offer an intriguing case study on motorcycle taxis that warrants consideration by urban planners in the United States and other OECD countries. Boda-bodas first emerged as bicycle taxis designed to take passengers on border crossing routes (or “border to border”) along the Ugandan-Kenyan frontier in the 1960s and 1970s. Now referred to as “boda-boda”, these taxis have become a ubiquitous part of transportation network in Uganda and much of East Africa. Indeed, the development of motorcycle taxi network maybe a solution to beating traffic in congested cities for American passengers who put a premium on speed and are not risk adverse.

Critics claim that there are as many as 300,000 boda-bodas in the Ugandan capital of Kampala alone (a number which seems suspect given that in Bangkok claims to have 200,000 motorcycle taxis and has a population of perhaps 10 million (compared to just 3.5 million residents for greater Kampala). Rather than causing congestion, if all the boda-boda riders went on strike the city of Kampala would grind to a halt.

Yet, despite this the Kampala Capital City Authority began considering the removal of all boda-bodas from city center this year. The Ugandan government isn’t the only ones cracking down on boda-bodas. This year the government of South Sudan has cracked down on Ugandan boda-boda drivers, deporting as many as three thousand. Meanwhile in Uganda, a public awareness campaign in the city depicted facial injuries and urged riders to wear a helmet. Few boda-bodas carry an extra helmet for a passenger, but most will give it obligingly to a passenger upon request (also, helmets are readily sale. Also, your boda-boda driver will oblige requests to slow his speed to a healthy crawl.

Yet, there is no denying that riding a boda-boda can be a dangerous activity, a fact made worse because of the poor condition of roads across Uganda. Indeed, because of the roads, it remains the only viable form of transportation in a country that as recently as 2002 only had 16,000 kilometers worth of paved roads out of a total of over 54,000 kilometers of roadway. Many of the paved roads are in disrepair. Even national arteries such as the road from Kampala to Juba – a route that links the capitals of Uganda and South Sudan – featured numerous potholes. Thus, boda-bodas are a vital small business transportation solution in rural areas, despite the risk.

If Ugandan authorities remain concerned, the government could partner with private companies to provide licensed boda-boda riders with vests and helmets for themselves and passengers, perhaps sponsored by telecommunications and fast moving good. Or boda-boda rider vests and helmets could be provided with advertising for public health campaigns. In the 1990s, the government of Thailand embraced the motorcycle taxis and involved them in anti-HIV/AIDs campaings.

Rather than seeing boda-boda riders as social pests, boda-boda riders should be seen as important stakeholders in Uganda’s communities. In Uganda, I have seen many boda-boda drivers offer directions provide assistance to injured motorists, and adjudicate disputes. Many microfinance institutions in Uganda agree, apparently, as they have often funded individuals seeking to buy their own bikes.

The typical career path for a boda-boda rider, however is usually seen as being transitory (like many low level service jobs in the United States). The career path for the typical boda-boda rider is as follows: rent someone else’s motorcycle while saving to purchase one. With the additional income of owning one’s own motorcycle, many boda-boda riders successfully transfer to other businesses. On a salary 560,000 schillings (Ugandan), some have worked their way through college and indeed earn more than a primary school teacher in Uganda. This salary reflects the risks of the position.

For a country like the United States the employment aspects of boda-bodas are tertiary at best. Yet, there are other policy implications which make the example of the boda-bodas important. First, these taxis offer a chance to break the taxi cartels held by many cities which keep cab fares high and reduce competition.. Secondly, motorcycle taxis can offer commuters with high risk tolerance a quick way to cut through mid-town Manhattan traffic or quickly navigate the stop-and-go 405 Freeway in Los Angeles (the freeway takes its nickname from an Angelenos joke that it takes four or five hours to get anywhere).

The motorcycle taxi is a natural extension of America’s love affair with wheeled transformation. In 2011 Moto Limos, a company in New York and Los Angeles, began operating a motorcycle taxi service. The service runs on an annual membership fee as well as fares for each individual trip. Passengers are given helmets and personal airbags. While originally the service offered passengers trips on both a Honda Gold Wing and the Can-Am Spyder. However, the Honda Goldwing won out eventually because — unlike the three-wheel Can-Am Spyder — this Japanese touring motorcycle can split traffic.

Uganda’s boda-boda riders would be proud.

Joseph Hammond is an American writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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