By Charles Chisi:
Malawi urban transport service is very shambolic to describe it best. Since the departure of Stagecoach from the scene in the early 90s, which used to provide well-managed urban transport service through Cityline buses, urban transport service is now provided by minibuses and taxis, whose proliferation over the years has not only eased mobility challenges but has also brought chaos to city roads to a great extent.
The problem with Malawi is that, since liberalisation of the public transport business following the departure of Stagecoach, players in the sector have operated without any meaningful regulations from the government, apart from enforcement of road traffic rules and regulations by traffic police officers.
Unlike other countries, where urban transportation business is provided and regulated by city authorities, service providers in Malawi operate in a free-for-all type of environment where anyone can just wake up and decide to put their family car on the road to operate as a taxi without any serious consequences from the authorities.
This is very dangerous to the travelling public as it is difficult to know which vehicle is a taxi worth taking or not. Already, we have had reports of many taxi-related crimes such as passengers being robbed of their valuables and efforts by the police to trace them have often times proved futile since these vehicles are not registered to operate as taxis.
In fact, it seems taxi operators in Malawi do not know what a taxi is. By definition, a taxi is any light vehicle with a designated place that takes a passenger from one point to another without stopping along the way to pick other passengers.
Therefore, what these small vehicles are doing in the cities is not taxiing but rather shunting and that is illegal, according to road traffic rules and regulations regardless of the colour of their number plates.
That is why I want to ask the government to correct this problem by placing urban transport business under the control of city authorities. This is exactly what happens in other countries. To regulate this business, city authorities need to come up with conditions operators must meet before starting business, and these should include registration, issuance of a renewable operator’s license and imposition of minimum vehicle condition to get rid of the scraps from our roads, among other measures.
Any passenger vehicle that operates without meeting these conditions could be impounded and owner fined accordingly because it shall be illegal to do so. I thought this is a reform area city authorities were supposed to explore to widen their revenue base.
The second step is to introduce colour-coding and numbering system for all passenger vehicles for easy identification. As already pointed out, it is very difficult, in the present case, to know which vehicle is a taxi or not without checking the colour of the number plate.
However, this problem could be addressed if passenger vehicles were to have a common identifiable colour like Yellow, which is a commonly used colour for taxis and minibuses in other countries. The numbers are given to operators during registration and help passengers report vehicles to police if there is any problem requiring their intervention. With this system, foreign nationals who use public transport in our cities would feel safe when moving from one place to another, unlike the situation at present.
Another way of regulating urban transport is for city assemblies to have their own buses to provide transport services to residents. In fact, cities have a social responsibility of improving living standards of their people and one way to achieve this is by introducing buses that offer lower bus fares during peak hours from 6am to 8am and from 4pm to 6pm, when people are going and coming back from work.
This is the best way to cushion the poor urban population from high transport costs triggered by frequent fuel price increases, which force them to walk long distances on foot sometimes.
And, to manage bus services better, city assemblies could also explore issuance of boarding cards as a modern way of ticketing for passengers to use when boarding their buses for a specific period. This is so because, unlike during the time of Stagecoach, passengers nowadays are in a hurry and do not need to be delayed by issuance of tickets whose process takes time.
Introducing buses could also help in addressing the problem of congestion of vehicles on the roads since even people with cars would be encouraged to use them.
In conclusion, Malawi is a poor country, indeed, but what makes us poorer is our lack of orderliness when doing things. Bringing sanity to our cities through the suggestions I have raised does not necessarily need a country to be rich. We can be poor but still have orderly and organised cities.