The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all sectors of transport, including the large informal transport sector, based primarily in developing cities. Informal transport includes privately-operated motorised and non-motorised transport with varying levels of formalisation. (LSE) Users of informal transport include anyone without access to formal transport, often middle and low-income residents. In some cities, up to 80% of the population relies on informal transport. (WhereisMyTransport)
Informal transport provides an essential service to the many people who use it, and is also a major employer; thus disruption to the sector has widespread impacts. These impacts are acutely felt in places like Mexico City, where 60% of all public transport trips and 50% of total trips are made through semi-formal “colectivos” with little government oversight or support. (MIT) While ridership is down, informal transport’s flexibility has proven invaluable during the pandemic, with drivers able to respond to demand and alter routes in real time. It has also played an important role in keeping cities moving as service on formal public transport systems has been reduced. (Open Access Government)
Government recovery support has been largely directed at formal transport operators, leaving the informal sector and its workers particularly vulnerable to lower demand from stay-at-home orders and COVID-19-related travel restrictions, including limiting passengers to comply with social distancing, which has proven difficult to enforce. In some places, such as Manila, informal drivers have modified their jeepneys by placing boxes in between the seats of the passengers to comply with social distancing policies. In other cases, social distancing is simply not possible, such as with popular motorcycle taxis, referred to as “boda bodas” in East Africa. (International Transport Workers’ Federation) In response, governments temporarily banned the use of boda bodas in countries like Uganda, despite the government allowing the use of other forms of public transport during that time. (The World)
In Kenya, where 70% of commuters rely on privately-operated matatus to get to work (Wired), the informal transport sector is a major employer, with nearly half a million people employed in the sector and its associated services. (LSE) Many informal transport operators have been forced to innovate in response to the pandemic, including by accelerating the use of digital apps in informal transport, as in the case of Matatu drivers partnering with private companies to transition to contactless fares in Nairobi (LSE), and through sharing informal transport routes and income in the case of colectivo drivers in Mexico City.
In some places, informal transport workers have organized and called for governments to provide personal protective equipment, subsidies and other forms of financial support, such as loan relief programs, to help address their dire financial situation. (International Transport Workers’ Federation) There have been, however, very limited examples of government support to informal transport. For example, in Mexico City, monthly fuel subsidies have been offered to informal drivers (Government of Mexico City), and in the state of Uttar-Pradesh, India, the government has promised to compensate informal workers impacted by COVID-19, including cycle and auto rickshaw drivers. (The World Bank). Nigeria has set up a “survival fund” to support informal transport operators.
COVID-19 has revealed and exacerbated existing vulnerabilities of the informal transport sector, and with government support and subsidies largely lacking, the viability of the sector is at risk, which would cause millions of commuters to lose access to the only transport available to them.
Additional support is needed to maintain access to vital informal transport services across low- and middle-income countries.
This section was developed by SLOCAT Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport with contributions from WhereIsMyTransport.