What traffic teaches us about Ugandan life

Friday May 29 2020


By Benjamin Rukwengye

Many people reading this might remember a time when public transport occasionally suffered paralysis every time government faced off with the Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers Association (Utoda), the all-powerful taxi governing body.

Commuters would be forced to walk home or to work, get pulled off taxis by Utoda riff-raffs or suffer teargas sponsored by the forever ready police.

Eventually, the city bureaucrats booted Utoda and took over taxi management. While those fights mostly over revenue and power – religious, tribal and political – were raging, the volume of traffic on the roads was rising. In fact, international firms were releasing reports warning of what was to come.

The chaos also meant that whoever could afford it resorted to private transport to circumvent the dysfunction. It also didn’t help that on this side of the aisle, cars double as status symbols representing achievement.

So the more our pseudo middle-class expanded, the more car loans banks paid out, the more lovers got gifted Nadias, the more used cars went for a dime.

The theories to explain the menacing traffic gridlocks range from the school calendar, to taxis, boda bodas, errant motorists, narrow roads, police officers, roundabouts, Pastor Kakande, the President and whichever other reason you’d like to. This multiplicity of causes portends the migraine it would take to solve the puzzle, no matter who is running transport in the city; dodgy private outfit or a government body, the difference is pretty much the same – chaotic, infuriating and drudgery.


It is also easy to see why taxis are the go-to fall guys, especially since they don’t make their case any easier. They park where and when they shouldn’t, drive on pavements, run red lights and generally behave like imps.

But if you have driven in Kampala even for a day, you are likely to find as many private cars guilty of the same violations – or worse if they are a big man, wife, or child. In essence, there is little difference between both sets of drivers.

This same Matatu-mentality is also reflected in the jumbled distribution of quality social services around the city, and how that consequently affects traffic. Think the assorted state, quality and affordability of schools, hospitals and homes in different locales around the city.

Because we cannot guarantee that the neighbourhood school will be the best school or as good as you can find anywhere else, a parent needs to cruise through town from Naalya, drop their child at Kampala Parents School in Naguru, and then head to work in Muyenga.

Another has to drive from Mutundwe to see a doctor in Mulago. If these school and hospital runs are happening with 5,000 people every day at the same time – and Kampala activity is said to have more than six times the volume on a given day – there is no way you can have ease of movement, especially if the city is crammed and everyone who can, is driving.

It’s not that children don’t go to school or patients to their doctors in other cities. It’s just that multiple schools and hospitals and churches malls, don’t get licensed to operate within a one or two kilometre radius of each other in the way that we do here, especially if the transport plan is “To Whom It May Concern.”

So how then do you get around this muddle? Well, I’d say planning – and I am not even joking – but that’s where the problem begins. For starters, every time city authorities talk regulation of public transport, they go after taxis – 14 passenger carriers – and not private vehicles which can only carry a maximum of four, but are carrying one. Even for an innumerate, this beggars logic.

For every taxi, you need three saloon/sedans to ferry an equal volume of passengers. So we need more mass carriers – taxis, coasters, buses – with planned routes and fewer private vehicles on the narrow roads. So disincentivise the ownership and use of private cars.

Think increased taxes, congestion charges , and penalties for owning more than one car. That’s how you solve this. Oh! And lanes for bikes and pedestrians.
But guess why these things don’t work…

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.