Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Informal Mobility is Here to Stay

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This article was originally drafted by Noviscape for Issue 14 of the newsletter “Trendnovation Southeast” as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Searchlight Process. For more Searchlight content on, please click here.

As Southeast Asian cities continue growing and expanding to the suburbs, enough roads could never be built to meet the burgeoning travel demand, and public transport has become increasingly critical. However, due to limited fiscal and organizational capacity in transport planning, coupled with political maneuvering by interest groups, most rail transit projects have been delayed. When these services finally come in operation, too often they are not “mass” but “class” transits because the fares are too high for the poor. Bus services are often inadequate, and public bus agencies tend to be debt-ridden. The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority, for instance, has a debt worth of about 25 billion USD as of 2011. It is small wonder that they cannot improve the service quality or area coverage. That leaves a large void for informal transport services to accommodate travel demand, particularly for those who cannot afford private automobiles. In Manila, paratransits account for 76 percent of total public transport trips, while the figure in Jakarta is about 34 percent.

Informal transport modes in Southeast Asia range from non-motorized traditional paratransits, such as pedicabs, to motorized ones, such as minibuses, vans, and motorcycle taxis. The types of services fall within the range between fixed routes-fixed stops, fixed routes-flexible stops, and flexible routes-flexible stops. The services are mostly run by small-scale, independent operators, who may or may not own the vehicles. In some cases where relatively large capital investment is required, such as for minibuses, drivers are often hired by the vehicle owners. In other cases involving smaller vehicles, such as motorcycle taxis, drivers are usually independent owner-operators. Unlike in other informal sectors, such as street vending, this informal sector is male dominant. It is rare to see female motorcycle, van, and minibus drivers. The number of female drivers may increase in the future, but probably not by much.

The love-hate relationship lingers

Despite the urge to over-regulate informal transport, transport planners have gradually come to terms with the flexibility, capacity, and responsiveness of informal transport in meeting travel demand. Nonetheless, most governments have not yet incorporated informal transport in their medium- and long-term transport planning. There are also limited data and research studies on informal transport in Southeast Asian cities, which are necessary for devising appropriate transport policies.

Complementarity and competition

Most megacities in Southeast Asia are currently planning and building more mass rail transit systems. Such infrastructure investment will change the cities’ urban structures drastically. The question arises as to how this will affect informal mobility. The answer depends on whether the governments will install draconian measures to regulate informal transport, how quickly they will expand rail transits and improve bus services, and how much cheaper private vehicles will become. Van services in Bangkok have already lured passengers away from traditional buses, which have been slow to adjust to rapidly changing and rising travel demand. New van routes to transit terminals have been added quickly to accommodate the demand of rail users. Yet, automobile sales have only been increasing in all these countries. If these trends continue, we can expect a scenario in which informal transport services will continue to grow alongside an increasing number of private cars being driven and a decreasing number of trips being taken on buses. Feeder services, such as motorcycle taxis, will continue to transport people to bus stops and rail stations.

Watch out for those secondary cities

Although transport problems continue to plague megacities, it is secondary cities that will need closer attention in the future. These cities, such as Chiang Mai in Thailand, Bandung in Indonesia, and Cebu City in the Philippines, are all experiencing rapid urban growth. Suburbanization is occurring in a similar fashion to that of megacities. The current public transport services are inadequate, but they are receiving even less attention than those in megacities. The rich and the middle class in these cities buy cars; the rest either use motorcycles or rely on paratransits. Population density is even lower in these cities, which makes it even more difficult for public transport to achieve economies of scale. Informal modes of transport have so far filled the gap, but as these cities continue to grow, public transport with greater capacity will become a necessity. Transport planning that integrates informal transport and bus services will sooner than later become necessary.

Searchlight Process

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Research and Records Unit has undertaken an innovative approach to addressing this challenge by generating applicable intelligence that emerges from a forward-looking, on-the-ground perspective throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is known as the “Searchlight” function—a group of forward-looking, regionally-focused horizon scanning and trend monitoring grantees that conduct regular, ongoing scanning for novel ideas, research results, and "clues" to where the world is evolving.