Do U.S. Cities Need Informal Transit?

| 01/25/2013 8:37am
Will Doig | Next City

Chinatown buses, one of the rare examples of informal transportation in urban America, have proved popular.

The closest encounters with informality that many visitors to developing-world cities have take place in taxis, microbuses, motorbikes, tuk tuks, and other unregulated transport. You can spend your time ensconced in spas, Michelin-rated restaurants and Four Seasons hotels, but when moving from one to the next, even high-end travelers often use informal transportation.

This is because, in many cities, informal transportation is simply the most convenient way to get around. It’s also frequently cheap and, for those of us not used to it, fun to use. Yet upon returning home, most Westerners find themselves back in the position of choosing between formal, government-run mass transit or a private car. (And because formal mass transit falls short in many places, the vast majority of us choose the latter).

There are legitimate reasons why Western cities are wary of informal transportation. Safety’s the big one, of course. Informal transit can also sap fares from municipal bus and rail systems. And for those who believe in the importance of unions, transitioning from a system that provides livable wages and enviable benefits to one that often provides neither seems a slippery slope to slide down.

But when you use informal transit in a city like Accra, for example, you can’t help but wonder if a stronger blend of formal and informal transportation could benefit Western cities. This week, Sharon Benzoni wrote about how the Ghanaian capital’s motorcycle taxis are one of the most effective ways to get around that city, as they’re able to circumvent its horrific congestion. It reminded me of how the Chinatown buses that began running between U.S. East Coast cities in the 1990s similarly solved a problem that government hadn’t. In that case, the problem was how to move through the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor cheaply and easily. The semi-informal Chinatown buses found a way, and other systems followed.

Like Accra’s moto-taxi service, the Chinatown buses are cheap and convenient. They also suffer from image problems, much as Accra’s motorcycle-taxi drivers do today. I’ve written in the past that glorifying the Chinatown buses as a perfect solution is misguided. But you can’t deny that the improvised system revolutionized inter-city transportation along the Eastern Seaboard. Point being, the wild popularity of the Chinatown buses shows that there’s clearly a desire in Western countries for informal transit solutions, a desire that’s largely gone unmet. In Accra, as Benzoni writes, motorcycle-taxi drivers are both popular and feared. In the West, formal transit is neither. There must be a way to borrow what’s popular about Accra’s system, while leaving the fear behind.