The problem with Uganda’s public transport system

Taxi drivers struggle to beat the jam at Clock Tower. The demand for public transport keeps growing by the day but little has been done to meet it. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

In this week’s series Didas Kisembo, Anna Katusiime, Sarah Tumwebaze, Ivan Okuda and Abubaker Lubowa look at setbacks in public transport. Part I looks at the history of the system and what the current problems are.

It was 7am, in the thick of the morning jams, when a boda boda rode past traffic officers into oncoming traffic, at the T-junction, near Spear Motors on Jinja Road. As one officer tried to apprehend the cyclist, the other barked, “Let him go! He thinks it is like before when they could dodge through.

These days, cars are many he will be run over. He wants to die.” And indeed the cyclist did have a couple of close shaves before finally making it through and disappearing into the river of rush-hour traffic flying past. Others have not been as lucky.

With the competition for space and predominantly narrow two-lane roads of Kampala, accidents are on the increase. A 2014 incident report from Police, that covers a five-year period (2008-2012) on injury and fatality trends, indicates that the number of fatalities on Ugandan roads as a result of road accidents was at 5,145 from 3,951 across the same period.

“The problem is that there are so many taxis on Kampala’s narrow roads and that volume is growing every day,” bemoans John Ndyomugyeni, the national chairman Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers Association (Utoda). Ndomugyeni says a more orderly means such as a rapid bus, in the short run, would solve the problem as we implement long term solutions.

Such an experiment was attempted by the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) in 2012 to decongest the roads by introducing the Pioneer transit buses – a privately owned venture – and it did create a semblance of order on the Kampala roads.

The fixed rates, defined stopovers and automated doors and automated payment systems of the Pioneer experiment were a refreshing encounter for many commuters in Kampala. But accumulated taxes and high banking interest rates from which the superstructure (buses) were acquired, put the Pioneer transit buses out of business 12 months later.

Paul Kwamusi, a transport specialist attributes the transit industry’s woes to several factors that include the lack of professionalism by those that run such ventures and absence of adequate feasibility studies.

“Investors take on such ventures with limited capital investment without realising that public transport should be a large investment.”

The pre-feasibility studies for the development of a long term integrated bus rapid transit system for greater Kampala metropolitan area conducted by the World Bank in conjunction with Kampala City Council released a report in 2010 pointing to the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as the appropriate technology for the efficient and effective movement of passenger volumes because of its ability to handle the excess of some 6,000 passengers per peak hour on different routes.

At that time, the estimated demand levels indicated that public transport demand was highest along Jinja Road, with approximately 120,000 passengers per day, and second highest on Entebbe Road, with approximately 105,000 passengers per day.

The BRT feasibility studies established that 57 per cent of roads within the Kampala city area are less than six metres in width, with 28 per cent being two lane roads and 15 per cent being three lanes or wider.

They noted that the lack of highway width potentially makes the implementation of segregated bus lanes challenging.
“What they overlooked is that for this to actually work, the roads must first be expanded to even create special lanes for these buses at some points and even loading areas,” says city Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago.

This was not the first time the government was trying to implement the use of transit buses. In the 1980s, the government attempted to apply the experiment on roads through its Uganda Transport Company buses (UTC) however, they were dogged by gross mismanagement and financial loss.
“Their parts were vandalised and replaced with old ones and in the end they were not viable for government to run as a business anymore. It was putting in more than it was getting,” says Ndyomugyeni.

Ndyomugyeni adds that there were also instances where the conductors and driver colluded and diverted fare fees. “One ticket would be used more than once. The conductors would re-insert used tickets into the ticket processing machine and keep the extra money. This caused the company and ultimately the government great financial loss.”

The UTC buses were then followed by the City Link buses in the early 1990s owned by influential businessmen Gordon Wavamunno but the company was elbowed out of operation by the advent of the then cheaper commuter taxis.

“If we put buses on the road now, we would be congesting the Kampala city more because these buses would be competing with commuter taxis. In my view, before introducing transit buses again, we must first organise the transport sector and fix the roads.

Currently only about 38 per cent of roads in Kampala are tarmacked and the remaining 70 per cent, which is the vast majority, is just gravel and murram. These buses are not meant for Kampala’s murram,” notes Lukwago.

The mayor says that the government needs to focus on expanding the roads in the city and building new ones if the growing volumes of passengers and taxis are to be handled amicably.

“What is disheartening is our road budget as KCCA over the past three years has mainly been for maintenance and new roads that were factored in for construction like Nakasero and Buganda road are not even among the busiest routes.”

The feasibility studies projected that by 2030, public transport demand would increase exponentially and demand on the busiest routes such as Jinja Road will exceed 700,000 passengers per day; this is approximately five times the current level and will present major challenges to public transport planners. Demand will also remain high on Entebbe Road – approximately 500,000 passengers per day and on Masaka and Bombo Road – between 200,000 and 300,000 passengers per day.

“These rapid transit buses are something the city needs but any undertaking to have the transit buses should be a collaboration between the private sector and government from the word go,” advises Lukwago. “You cannot have the mass transport system of a city entirely in private hands.” Kwamusi, on the other hand believes that transit buses can only thrive where there is heavy investment in road infrastructure.

“We should use lessons learnt from successful examples in other countries to build on our own.”

Whichever way you look at it, all notions point at a concerted effort that involves all parties – the government, KCCA and the public – to bring back the transit bus and decongest the city. How that union can be fostered in the coming years, remains to be seen.