Rapidly urbanizing African countries face unique mobility challenges as unplanned growth strains overtaxed road infrastructures, escalates congestion and increases travel times for the poorest urban residents, while contributing to the world’s highest road mortality rates.
Filling the gaps in urban infrastructure, innovative public transport systems have emerged from the so-called ‘informal’ sector across urban Africa. Minibuses, motorcycle taxis, and shared cabs serve hard to reach areas more cheaply and conveniently than planned systems. Even in cities with ambitions to revamp and formalize transport, informal transport has not disappeared, serving peripheral areas and populations not confined to the male-commuter who dominates transport planning investments. 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 sustainable mobilities and inclusive urban futures.
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. Abidjan’s growth is characterized by increasing density as well as sprawl, and is at the forefront of efforts to revamp public transport. 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.
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), woro-woro (shared taxi), and saloni (auto-rickshaw) systems in Abidjan, 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.
Fieldwork on the project has taken place under three themes: picturing a just transition, innovation at the margins, and maternal mobilities.
First, collaborating with an association of communal taxi drivers, we conducted a photo-documentation project in which drivers made images capturing key attributes of the informal transportation system (everyday operations, challenges, working conditions, obstacles to development, and ideas and initiatives for reform). This project revealed the extent and routinization of violence in the transport sector, the infrastructural features of the city that shape conflicts over space, and speculative proposals for a just mobility transition that would recognize and build on the services provided by communal taxis.
Second, collaborating with researchers from the University of Cocody, we have documented the emergence of a new mode of urban transport, auto-rickshaws locally dubbed ‘salonis, at the margins of the city. This industry arrived in Abidjan in January 2019 and our research has tracked its development as it takes root in new territories. Our ethnographic research has examined the ways that intersecting forms of marginality (spatial, social, legal, and infrastructural) form the conditions of possibility for the adoption of new transport technologies ‘from below’ and influence the shape that popular infrastructures take.
Third, we have used mobility diaries to examine the everyday practices through which mothers of young children navigate the city. Through these diaries, we are able to identify the ways that mothers use popular transport, the forms of social and economic exclusion that these systems engender, and the routine forms of mobility that structure inter-generational care practices.