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What is Paratransit? Mobility in the Global South

  • Global
  • Development
  • Future of Mobility
  • Integrated mobility
  • Investments in transport
  • Paratransit
  • Regional transport
  • Urban mobility
Paratransit in the Global South

Collective. Unregulated. Essential!

Paratransit is essential to the livelihoods of millions across the Global South. In much of the developing world, from Africa to Latin America and Asia, collective and often unregulated transport operators provide jobs and mobility solutions to populations who need it.

For many, paratransit is a source of income and local pride. And for others, paratransit plugs the gaps where mass public transport just doesn’t exist. It’s this business-driven nature that means paratransit comes in all shapes and sizes and fulfils all sorts of needs. As a result, authorities and operators find the sector hard to define, let alone to develop a clear and coherent strategy that takes paratransit into account.

To assist the public transport sector to better approach paratransit, and ultimately improve mobility for all, UITP’s Paratransit Working Group has brought together experts and professionals to explore the sector. Emmanuel Dommergues, the Head of Mobility Governance at UITP, shares his insights from collaborating with the working group.

What is paratransit?

Emmanuel: To start with, para and transit refer to collective transport services that are ‘nearly like’ or ‘around’ mass public transport. In short, paratransit refers to the predominant form of collective transport in the Global South. Rather than boxing the sector in with a simple definition, the experts and professionals in UITP’s Paratransit Working Group propose a description of the sector that looks at its different and diverse characteristics.

“A study found that in 18 large African cities, paratransit represents 60% to 100% of collective transport.”
Emmanuel Dommergues
UITP Head of Mobility Governance

What are the characteristics of paratransit?

Emmanuel: Some characteristics are visible and some are invisible. It’s easy to recognise a tuk tuk in India, a jeepney in the Philippines, or a minibus taxi in South Africa. UITP’s group of experts try to adopt a ‘political economy’ approach to the sector, meaning that we identify the stakeholders involved, the relationship between them, and how the overall system functions and is structured.

The structure of paratransit varies significantly. There may be one owner-driver, though drivers may also be hired or work for vehicle owners. Those involved in delivering the service may work on their own, or be part of a cooperative or company, of which the size may vary.

How does paratransit differ per region?

Emmanuel: There are indeed 50 shades of grey, as we like to say in the UITP Paratransit Working Group. If we start with the visible aspects, vehicles differ largely: there are 2 wheelers, 3 wheelers, cars, minibuses, pickup trucks, and sometime larger buses (up to 12 metres). There is even a one carriage train that serves a Latin American community and transports commodities! Some vehicles might have been altered to fit more seats, have a rain cover, or be decorated so that users can identify them easily.

The differences may also be visible in users that are served, from large and small cities; central areas as well as in peripheral areas; women, men, young and old people; regular or occasional users. Paratransit adapts to and accommodates many different market segments. Equally, the way that governments, agencies, and any other public bodies licence, regulate, plan, or manage paratransit services differs enormously from context to context.

Is there any paratransit in the Global North?

Emmanuel: Yes, paratransit services can be found in the Global North. But key elements such as legal, institutional, and cultural contexts, as well as the higher level of motorisation, are critical differences between the Global North and the Global South.

One lesson that I have learned by listening to the working group’s high-level experts is that the Global South’s paratransit sector provides imaginative, tech-frugal, and smart solutions that meet people’s mobility needs in a way that can inspire the Global North to improve its mobility system in a smart and sustainable way.

What are the strengths of paratransit?

Emmanuel: There are many! I’ll mention just a few. For users, whether urban or rural, the sector provides daily, adaptative, flexible, tailor-made, and cost-friendly transport solutions.

Paratransit is often well organised – lines are structured, converge in hubs and terminals, serve specific areas with winding or hilly streets, and all at different times of the day. In Cape Town, South Africa, there are paratransit ‘holidays services’ to the beach. In Visakhapatnam, India, ‘cabotage services’ connect two BRT stations.

“For workers, the sector is a critical job provider. In Tanzania, one minibus creates four jobs.”
Emmanuel Dommergues
UITP Head of Mobility Governance

And these jobs are not just the owners, drivers, or fare collectors – there are many indirect jobs in maintenance, energy provision, operation equipment provision, and more. The digital economy (apps, info providers, seat booking, real-time tracking) is also fuelled by paratransit development. Manufacturers also provide technological solutions, from passenger or driver information devices to solar panels and clean energy engines.

From the point of view of authorities and governments, paratransit provides mobility solutions in cities and territories that adapt excellently to different contexts. Essentially, paratransit providers substitute publicly organised and regulated transport services.

What are the weaknesses of paratransit?

Emmanuel: The sector faces fundamental challenges. Users do not always get the service quality or reliability that they expect. For example, unprofitable routes and times may be excluded or limited. Notably, Friday late afternoon services in some areas are inadequate as drivers rush back home for the weekend.

In addition, vehicles are sometimes old, offer too few seats, and overcrowding is common. Vehicles do not comply with road safety requirements, nor with environmental or emission standards. As well, the oversupply tends to generate congestion on certain streets. Not to mention that conditions can be very tough for drivers and fare collectors, who must work long days to meet their daily income target to cover costs.

Paratransit has a dual nature. On one hand, the sector is business-driven, led by small entrepreneurs, SMEs, and cooperatives of mixed scales. The nature of business drives its decisions. On the other hand, paratransit plays the role of an essential service as a critical mobility provider to populations who need to travel to access education, employment, friends, family, leisure, hospitals, and more.

With this in mind, the UITP Paratransit Working Group and its partners are driving the conversation in the following direction: there is a need to put the sector on a path of transformation to make it stronger, more qualitative, and more aligned with high-level policy goals, such as the UN’s sustainable development goals.

The working group is also aware that transformation is a complex and difficult process, and that we are lucky in the UITP Paratransit Working Group to share our valuable experiences.

“It is critical to consider that paratransit should play a major role in today and tomorrow’s mobility system in the Global South. We should neither disregard nor get rid of the sector.”
Emmanuel Dommergues
UITP Head of Mobility Governance

How should public transport operators and authorities approach paratransit?

Emmanuel: Paratransit is essential, but it is possible to improve it. One way to improve it is to develop holistically a sustainable transport system with strong synergies between paratransit and mass public transport. For example, mass public transport systems in Cape Town and Dakar, Senegal (both bus rapid transit) and Lagos, Nigeria (heavy rail) act as the backbone of transport networks where there are many paratransit providers. Paratransit can be a feeder service like in Istanbul, Turkey, or the main service in areas lacking mass public transport like in Kampala, Uganda, which is high density and demographically dynamic.

But transforming paratransit is a journey. We must understand what roles different paratransit stakeholders can play in the sector’s future. Who should be responsible for the business and operation of services? Who should set the criteria that the sector must meet in terms of integration? What kind of relationship should exist between a regulator and operators? And what conditions should be met by the sector to bring valuable benefits to communities? These are key questions that our working group is exploring.

Ultimately, the two conditions of success are trust and dialogue. This requires a human-centric approach and a focus on the sector’s workforce, as well as ensuring that paratransit users (typically hard to reach) are consulted and have their say.

Understanding paratransit

Essential reading for the public transport sector

“Our paper on the Description, Roles, and Functions of Paratransit offers a good understanding of how to approach the system. The 12-pager on data identifies the criteria that you can use to grasp the main characteristics of the sector. And finally, the business model toolkit shows how the sector really works and explores how paratransit providers right now depend so much on reaching their daily revenue target to cover all their costs.”
Emmanuel Dommergues
UITP Head of Mobility Governance
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