Monday, March 19, 2007

Why can’t there be transit like this back home?

March 19

It’s not like the Africans have a lot to teach us about infrastructure. The hygienic wisdom of the open sewer concept has already been questioned in these pages; enough said. Note also that I write now by candlelight. Ghana suffers from nationwide rolling blackouts each week because the publicly-owned Akosmobo dam doesn’t generate enough hydroelectricity to power homes all the time as well as meet its commercial obligations (guess who gets screwed in that equation).

So there’s room for improvement in the public services sector. But when it comes to public transport Africa is miles ahead of North America.

Well, that’s not quite true. Mexicans follow the same handy custom, whereby anybody (always a man) can get a van or a car and drive around picking up fares. I reckon every third car in Ghana is a vehicle for hire. It’s such an obvious business opportunity, especially for roadways clogged with single-driver vehicles across Canada and the United States.

Within Kumasi it costs anything between 10 and 30 cents to jump on a ‘tro-tro,’ depending how far you want to travel. You just flag down a passing van that has some dude hanging out the side door, hollering the van’s destination at potential pedestrian customers. If there’s room on board the van pulls over, you get in and squish into a seat and hope the driver is from the relatively sane end of the Ghanaian motorist spectrum, which ranges from swerving daredevil menace to vengeful religious myopic. Seatbelts and speed limits don’t really exist. Before you get off, you pay.

Sure, tro-tros are packed tight with people, baggage and, sometimes, livestock (look closely for monkey in picture above). Sometimes they go long distances and the farther they travel the more stuff of course, but they’re still way cheaper than the bus lines and often more reliable. During my trip back from Burkina the bus died on the side of the road and I did the tro-tro shuffle across the Ghana border and 600 kilometres farther south. There was a live goat on board the final 380 km, stuffed under the rear seats with a bunch of other luggage. He didn’t bite.

Laws prevent such services from operating in Canada and the United States, where we are waaayy more civilized and would never allow a goat on a bus with humans, what are you, crazy? Regulation does have its reasons: tro-tros are not very safe, liability is always an afterthought and goats do have fleas. But surely licensing regular drivers in regular cars driving regular routes for petty cash is a worthwhile solution to urban sprawl.

Wait, that’s not all. How about this concept: shared taxi! Same premise as the tro-tro, except you have four passenger seats instead of 22, so you charge a bit more. The cabbie drives a regular route down a busy street while passengers jump in and out at their leisure. If some foolish oboroni wants to pay for to-the-door service, he can have it for anywhere between $1 and $5. The sums are relatively paltry, but the proportions are not; shared taxis cost one tenth as much as a private hire.

For some reason the recent discovery of these intricacies did not satisfy my needs for transport efficiency and fiscal prudence (mine is part Scottish blood, after all). So I bought a bicycle, which has always kicked ass on all other modes of urban transport, and always will, amen. My new ride is a Chinese P.O.S. one might find at Canadian Tire. Cost me about $50 to buy her new, all tuned up. She’s called African Power. Blue. Lots of fancy doodads, like an electric horn that lights up and side mirrors. The first hill I climbed I put some torque into the left pedal and broke it off.

Not to worry, the guys at the shop said they’d fix her up. While I’m there I’ll get them to take off some of the gadgets, which truth be told make me feel like a bit of a wiener.

The only real concern will be keeping the line between crazy tro-tros on the left and open sewers on the right. Mom, don’t worry, I’m looking into getting a helmet. And I’m already immunized against typhus. G.

No comments: