If you need to go to the center of Accra, Ghana, there’s no need to call a taxi or find a bus stop. Just walk to the roadside and wait. In a minute or two, a van will drive by with a man leaning out the side yelling out a destination. There your ride will be: a tro-tro, one of the thousands in this West African capital.
On a recent visit to Accra, the tro-tros got me thinking about America’s trending “sharing economy” and how ride-share services like Uber and Lyft have inspired protests, legal challenges and complaints from traditional cabbies. I wondered: Could the next step forward be shared vehicles like Ghana’s tro-tros? Would the approach address Uber’s shortcomings?
On the street, a Ghanaian tro-tro is not entirely unlike an American taxicab. Each vehicle is owned privately and rented to the operators. Riders pay cash based on the distance traveled.
But tro-tros also differ rather sharply from taxis. Rather than a single rider designating a specific destination, they ply a set route within or between cities. Riders often access them at transit hubs in Ghanaian towns, where vehicles await passengers. (In Accra, a city of 2.3 million, many tro-tros start or end in Nkrumah Circle, a vast gravel field that extends for well over half a kilometer.) Shared taxis hold five passengers; tro-tros, as many as 20. Most vehicles move when each seat is occupied, but it’s rare to wait more than a few minutes for that. (Taxis for single occupants exist, but are rarer.)
The way tro-tros are administered is different too. The Ghana Private Road Transport Union of the Ghana Trade Unions Congress controls Ghana’s tro-tros through simple bureaucratic certification of vehicles and drivers. The process is completely unlike the taxi medallion system in American cities, which, by limiting the number of cab licenses and allowing them to be traded freely, constrain the number of available cabs far below market capacity. That system was ripe for Uber’s disruption — which “innovated” a straight-forward driver enrollment process that roughly resembles Ghana’s.
Shared taxis might also have a far different safety record than Uber currently does. The chances of a driver harming a rider seem to decrease with multiple witnesses aboard. Daniel Amedu, an 18-year-old “mate,” or fare collector, who has been on the job for three years, says he’s never seen violence of any kind on a tro-tro. Accra driver Asmoah Maxwell, who is 54, admits, “It’s only the armed robbers we are afraid of,” but says he’s never heard of violence inside a vehicle in a career he calls “very long.” It’s remarkable, considering being a cabbie in America is considered one of the country’s most dangerous jobs and tales of Uber violence are not uncommon.
Should America develop a shared transit system like Ghana’s? To that question, Maxwell gives the only answer he can: “I haven’t been there before!”
Arguably, the tro-tro approach could allow an American taxicab company an opportunity to compete with Uber. But whether or not the calcified industry can about-face rapidly enough to alter its service is questionable. “I’m already at peace with the idea that I’m going to go bankrupt,” Larry Ionescu, owner of 98 Chicago cab medallions, told the New York Times late last year.
In any case, Uber is already there. About shared rides, company representative Jennifer Mullin says, “That sounds like Uberpool.” Tagged “carpooling with Uber,” the new service attempts to combine app-based hailing with filling every seat of a vehicle, thereby lowering the price point of the ride. The system is a step towards Ghana’s system, minus the infrastructure of large transit hubs.
Uber might be working to reinvent a system that exists elsewhere, but Africa transportation will likely always lack an aspect of the company: its deliberately ostentatious behavior. When Uber launched, one of its investors tweeted “Rolling in an @ubercab. Eat your heart out Robin Leach.”
Riding in a tro-tro in Accra, I realized that kind of obnoxiousness was nowhere in sight — and no one seemed to be missing it. Ghana’s shared rides aren’t luxurious. But when I asked longtime driver Jesse Prempeh how to improve the current system, he paused, then said, “That is not easy to say.”
“We want to get to the point that using Uber is cheaper than owning a car,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Vanity Fair in December. “Transportation that’s as reliable as running water.” In Ghana, tro-tros are already more reliable than running water. The hyper-efficient, cheap and ubiquitous transportation system has attained a goal that Uber touts as its raison d‘être — without needing a smartphone app, much less a strategy even the company’s own investors call unlikeable.
Eat your heart out, Uber.
M. Sophia Newman is a freelance writer and an editor with a substantial background in global health and health research. She wrote Next City's Health Horizons column from 2015 to 2016 and has reported from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and the United States on a wide range of topics. See more at msophianewman.com.