Everyday Mobilities and Gendered Opportunities in African Urban Transport Systems: An Ethnography of ‘Informality’
Researchers: Jacob Doherty, Tim Schwanen
Description of work
Rapidly urbanizing African countries face unique and unprecedented mobility challenges as unplanned growth exacerbates strain on already overtaxed road infrastructures, escalates congestion, increases travel distances, times, and discomfort for the poorest urban residents, while contributing to the world’s highest road mortality rates. High mobility costs, both monetary and temporal, contribute both to unemployment, insofar as they inhibit job-searching and access to economic opportunities, and to the proliferation of slums, as many residents prefer to live in informal settlements close to industries and markets rather than embark on long commutes. Recognizing these challenges, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on infrastructure (#9) and cities (#11) emphasize the role of public transport systems in improving well-being and the quality of urban life, fostering inclusive development, and combatting climate change.
Filling the gap created by disjunctive urban growth that outstrips investment in urban infrastructure, innovative public transport systems have emerged from the so-called ‘informal’ sector across urban Africa. Both a solution and a contributor to many urban challenges, minibuses, motorcycle taxis, and shared cabs move millions of people through African cities daily. They serve hard to reach areas more cheaply and conveniently than planned systems have been able to, but also contribute to high levels of air pollution, traffic accidents, and sexual harassment. Even in cities with ambitions to revamp and formalize transport en toto, informal transport has not disappeared, as hybrid multimodal systems have taken root and mini-buses chart new routes through urban peripheries. Simply treating these systems as residual symptoms of state failure, evidence of lack, or the mere shadow of urban planning fails to capture their importance and dynamism, inhibiting the development of genuinely inclusive urban futures.
This project asks how informal transport systems are positioned to respond to the present and future transportation needs of growing cities. Through a multi-method ethnographic study of the gbaka (minibus) and woro-woro (shared taxi) systems in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, it analyses the structure of informal transportation, its contribution to upward social mobilities for operators and passengers, and the multiple forms of regulation seeking to transform transportation from within and outside the industry. The project pays particular attention to gender, asking both how informal transport systems differentially construct and distribute socio-spatial mobilities and how these are situated in and (re)productive of historically constituted ways of understanding and practicing gendered identities.
As the economic hub of Cote d’Ivoire, Abidjan has long been the destination of choice for rural to urban from across Francophone West Africa. Its population of 5 million people is hugely cosmopolitan and includes a growing middle class of “modest prosperity” (Bardeletti 2011) attracting international investments in real estate, retail, and infrastructure. Revitalizing urban infrastructure and redefining citizenship have been critical to the country’s post-conflict political-economic recovery that aims for “emergence” – a rapidly growing economy, social development, and good governance – by 2020. While the city is facing similar infrastructural challenges to other African cities, due to complex land tenure systems and the population’s mobility needs, Abidjan’s growth is characterized by increasing density rather than sprawl, posing both challenges and opportunities for public transport. It is at the forefront of efforts to revamp public transport, with new projects to build a metro rail system, harness smart-city technologies and big data to know and govern mobilities, upgrade the road network, launch public-private partnerships in the water-taxi sector, and ongoing efforts to formalize and upgrade the long-standing informal gbaka and woroworo systems. Abidjan’s case offers a unique occasion to study the entangled transformations of spatial and social mobility to better understand how existing public transport systems do, and do not, provide mobilities and socio-economic opportunities for operators and passengers alike.
Aims and research questions
This project asks three overarching questions:
- How do regulators conceive of and seek to transform gbaka and woro-woro systems and what ongoing innovations, imagined reforms, and desired futures do operators and passengers have for these systems
- What opportunities for and challenges to upward social mobility do gbakas and woro-woros provides for operators?
- What place do these transport systems occupy in the everyday mobilities and moral imaginaries of Abidjan’s growing middle class? In particular, how do these highly gendered forms of mobility differentially structure spatial and social mobility and how are they implicated in changing meanings and practices of gender in the city?