Boda bodas are a part of our lives

Monday August 03 2020

Sometime in 2007, I went to work and during the day a friend’s sister went to be with the Lord. So I went to spend some time with them.

At midnight, I found my home inaccessible due to road construction in the area. No one notified us. Fortunately, my cousin lived in the neighbourhood.

In the morning, I decided to use a boda boda to church for the funeral service. Fifteen minutes later I was in a clinic, screaming as the doctor patched up my knees, stitching. We were riding on our lane, when a driver dodging potholes on his lane knocked us. He sped away, not bothered if we had died or not. We did not see his number plate.
The boda boda was bleeding profusely. I gave him money to go see a doctor and took another one to a clinic. That marked the beginning of boda boda phobia for me.

Still, I was grateful that the rider was disciplined, because it could have been worse.

This is a common story. Many, sadly, cannot tell their story. It is thus understandable, that many people were excited, when Minister for Kampala, Betty Amongi announced a boda boda free zone in the central business district (CBD).

Seeing Minister Amongi talk about bringing order to the city sometimes feels like breathing fresh air. From banning boda bodas in the CBD to now introducing a ‘city access penalty’ for private cars. The lockdown has been a blessing, and busy for her. Policy after policy and grand plans.

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As I see these measures introduced in piecemeal, I wonder if our diagnosis is right.

For boda bodas, we frame them as the problem for the chaos in the city. We accuse them of lawlessness, characterise them as dangerous, account for many deaths if statistics by the police force on causes of accidents count for anything, are responsible for pollution in the city, and congestion.

Still, the question is, what problem are we fixing by keeping boda boda and private cars off the CBD? What data is informing our options? Is it a law and order problem? Is it a health and safety problem? Is it a transport problem?

Maybe the answer is typically, all of the above. But we ought to be sure because the same way people die when doctors make wrong diagnosis and treatment, policies have an equivalence.

From a strictly transport point of view, boda bodas are not the problem. Infact, they provide a transport alternative within a difficult public transport situation. Taking them away reduces choice, and that is not a good thing. Solving the transport problem should increase choice, not reduce.

In some places, they are the choice. The only way my mother visits her garden or bring produce home is boda boda. Clearly, the contribution of boda bodas to mobility and providing a transport alternative is unquestionable.

In many ways, the boda boda is the people’s transport, what my friend Douglas, an international transport planner and policy expert calls ‘transport for the people by the people’. We should therefore have an inclusive solution to the public transport problem.

The boda boda dilemma is that it affects a greater urban livelihood stream. Urban development requires that one looks not only at making a ‘city smart’ by ordering it, but addressing livelihoods too.

For instance, transport in the city is tied to the hip of urban housing. You cannot address transport without looking at housing. You cannot wish away boda bodas without addressing the larger public transport problems.

And you cannot legislate it away without addressing physical planning. It is largely the reason we failed to keep vendors off the street, because these solutions are not connected.

Interestingly, let us say conservatively, that a boda boda man or woman on average makes about Shs10,000 net a day. And that there are one million boda bodas in the country. In one year, that will be about Shs3.65 trillion and God knows how many million households’ source of income.
If I were government, I would be thinking hard on how to better organise it, bring it into the national tax base, and regulate it in a way that facilitates their trade while alleviating public distress. They are part of the increasing share of services to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

If the motivation is improving transport, then it must be part of a comprehensive measure with viable alternatives. If you make public transport efficient, most people will not need persuasion not to drive their car into the city centre or be deterred by a penalty because accessing the city is already punishment enough. The real issue is how do we facilitate mobility in the city and country?

We should fix transport more holistically. Taking out boda bodas while prohibiting private cars without meaningful access options to mobility in rapid succession is both counterproductive and counter intuitive. Love them or hate them, they are a part of our lives. Facilitate them to work better.

Ms Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media Studies at UCU.
emillycm@gmail.com

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