By John Mututwa and Malindi Chatora
In 2017, the Government through the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC) announced its intentions to reform the public transport sector. In part, the announcement was made against the backdrop of urban public transport problems such as poor service quality,inefficient route configuration and unaffordable passenger fares characterizing service provision in most urban centres in Zambia.
These problems have caused many commuters to shun public transport and resort to walking and cycling, and private motor vehicles for those that can afford.
Around the world, urban public transport systems include buses, cable cars, trams and light trains etc., operating on fixed schedules, routes and fares. In Zambia, like in many developing countries, public transport is mainly road based, dominated by intra-city minibuses. Usage of high occupancy vehicles or big buses for urban public transport in Zambia became rare following policy reforms that suspended import duty on buses, resulting in an influx of relatively cheaper minibuses. This followed the privatisation and subsequent liquidation of the loss-making, state-owned, United Bus Company of Zambia in 1995 as part of the general economic reforms of the 1990s.
The removal of import duty on minibuses soon led to the increase in overall supply of public transports services. However, service quality begun to decline as the market became more and more deregulated. Now, over two decades after the reforms, research shows that Zambia’s urban public transport system is unsatisfactory and does not meet the international standards of convenience, reliability and affordability for commuters.
Reforms to introduce managed bus services and switch to higher occupancy vehicles announced by the Government are not only important but also urgent. Apart from the aforementioned problems, Zambia is also urbanising rapidly at a rate of 4.3 percent annually. The country’s urban population is projected to reach 11 million people by 2030. The rise in urban population will translate into increased demand for transportation services, including public transport. In addition, as cities like Lusaka, Ndola and Kitwe grow and their inhabitants become richer, the number of private motor vehicles, per 1,000 inhabitants will continue to grow and soon reach unsustainable levels, causing increased road traffic congestion and air pollution. Thus, the necessity for efficient urban transport networks and a well-regulated public transport system, accessible to all – rich or poor – cannot be overstated for these cities to remain functional.
Towards ensuring successful reforms, major changes in the regulatory framework are likely to be inevitable. Firstly, public transport provision and regulation will have to be devolved to councils as recommended in the new draft National Transport Policy and the wider Decentralization Policy. This is because councils, unlike central government authorities or agencies that share some of the critical public transport functions, have more spatially widespread structures and in principle, have better understanding of public transports needs of their jurisdictions.
Nonetheless, although the proposal to decentralise management of urban public transport to councils is commendable, the councils may still need to be adequately resourced for them to fulfil this mandate and other related responsibilities. Research by the World Bank in 2002 showed that local authorities were often cash-strapped and institutionally ill-prepared for such new functions as managing certain services.
Secondly, enhanced coordination among institutions with a mandate in public transport will be vital. This is because the responsibility of managing public transport in Zambia is diffused across a number of institutions – MTC, Road Transport and Safety Agency, Road Development Agency, local authorities and Zambia Police – with overlapping mandates, with risks of causing confusion and inertia for change. The lead institution should be clear to all as should be the roles that each party is expected to play. The lead institution can help streamline responsibilities and reduce overlaps of mandates by acting as a secretariat to all institutions with a public transport mandate.
Lastly, MTC will do well to widely consult current public transport providers e.g. minibus owners, on their possible integration and participation into the new system. Wider consultations are essential to establish a sense of ownership among current stakeholders and thus to garner their support for the reforms.
As we await the launch of the draft National Transport Policy, ZIPAR will continue to engage stakeholders in order to gain more understanding on the right institutional set-up for the delivery of public transport services in Zambia.