Is informal transport flexible?


  • Tamara Kerzhner University of California, Berkeley



paratransit, informal transport, Africa, public transport, labor


Informal transport is often described as flexible, reactive, demand responsive, niche-filling, and in-tune with passenger needs. This paper proposes expanded definitions of flexibility in the operations of informal transport networks and presents a theoretical framing for understanding the growth and change in the locations of routes and terminals. Based on surveys and interviews of transport workers and regulators in four African cities, it argues that individually competing vehicles encounter coordination failures that limit their incentives for searching out niche services. Meanwhile, in cities with localized, route-based associations, organizations of multiple vehicles are able to take on the initiative and risk of developing new service locations and responding to passenger demand. This is done through a complex, gradual process that includes temporary subsidies to drivers and operators, testing and measuring potential demand, and advertising the new route. The key mechanism is in competition not between individual drivers, who manage internal competition carefully with a variety of mechanisms to distribute income opportunities fairly, but between firms and associations over territorial coverage. This not only opens potential for engaging transport associations in planning and policymaking, but also reveals limitations to the coverage and equity of access offered by existing networks and incentive structures.


Agbiboa, D. E. (2016). No condition is permanent: Informal transport workers and labor precarity in Africa’s largest city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(5), 936–957.

Alcorn, L. G., & Karner, A. (2021). Integrating formal and informal transit into one hybrid passenger transport system in Lagos, Nigeria. Transportation, 48(3), 1361–1377.

Ardila, A. (2008). Limitation of competition in and for the public transportation market in developing countries: Lessons from Latin American cities. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2048, 8–15.

Asimeng, E. T., & Heinrichs, D. (2020). Why do paratransit operators resist participation in bus rapid transit? Case evidence from Bogota, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Lagos. Transport Reviews, 41(1), 1–21.

Askari, S., Peiravian, F., Tilahun, N., & Yousefi Baseri, M. (2020). Determinants of users’ perceived taxi service quality in the context of a developing country. Transportation Letters, 13(2)125–137.

Barrett, J. (2003). Organizing in the informal economy: A case study of the minibus taxi industry in South Africa. Geneva: International Labor Organization.

Behrens, R., & Ferro, P. S. (2015). Barriers to comprehensive paratransit replacement. Paratransit in African cities (pp. 215–236). Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge.

Behrens, R., McCormick, D., & Mfinanga, D. (2015). Paratransit in African Cities: Operations, regulation and reform. Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge.

Behrens, R., McCormick, D., & Mfinanga, D. A. (2012). An evaluation of policy approaches to upgrading and integrating paratransit in African urban public transport systems: Results of the first round of a Delphi survey. Retrieved from

Best, A. (2016). The way they blow the horn: Caribbean dollar cabs and subaltern mobilities. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(2), 442–449.

Campbell, K. B., Rising, J. A., Klopp, J. M., & Mbilo, J. M. (2019). Accessibility across transport modes and residential developments in Nairobi. Journal of Transport Geography, 74, 77–90.

Cervero, R. (2000). Informal transport in the developing world. Nairobi, Kenya: UN-HABITAT.

Cervero, R., & Golub, A. (2007). Informal transport: A global perspective. Transport Policy, 14(6), 445–457.

Chadwick, E. (1859). Results of different principles of legislation and administration in Europe: Of competition for the field, as compared with competition within the field, of service. Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 22(3), 381–420.

Chavis, C., & Daganzo, C. F. (2013). Analyzing the structure of informal transit: The evening commute problem. Research in Transportation Economics, 39(1), 277–284.

Clark, P., & Crous, W. (2002). Public transport in metropolitan Cape Town: Past, present and future. Transport Reviews, 22(1), 77–101.

Cowie, J. (2009). The economics of transport: A theoretical and applied perspective. Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge.

Digital Transport 4 Africa. (2019). Digital Transport Resource Center (Beta) – An open & collaborative platform to improve urban public transport. Retrieved from

Estache, A., & GóMez‐Lobo, A. (2005). Limits to competition in urban bus services in developing countries. Transport Reviews, 25(2), 139–158.

Evans, A. (1990). Competition and the structure of local bus markets. Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, 24(3), 255–281.

Ference, M. (2016). Together we can: Redefining work in Nairobi’s urban transportation sector. Anthropology of Work Review, 37(2), 101–112.

Ference, M. (2021). You will build me: Fiscal disobedience, reciprocity and the dangerous negotiations of redistribution on Nairobi’s matatu. Africa, 91(1), 16–34.

Foster, C., & Golay, J. (1986). Some curious old practices and their relevance to equilibrium in bus competition. Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, 20(2), 217–244.

Gamble, J., & Dávalos, C. (2019). Moving with masculine care in the city: Informal transit in Quito, Ecuador. City, 23(2), 189–204.

Gamble, J., & Puga, E. (2019). Is informal transit land-oriented? Investigating the links between informal transit and land-use planning in Quito, Ecuador (Working Papers) [WP19JG1]. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Gauthier, A., & Weinstock, A. (2010). Africa transforming paratransit into BRT. Built Environment, 36(3), 317–327.

Godard, X. (2013). Comparisons of urban transport sustainability: Lessons from West and North Africa. Research in Transportation Economics, 40(1), 96–103.

Goldwyn, E. (2020). Anatomy of a new dollar van route: Informal transport and planning in New York City. Journal of Transport Geography, 88, 102309.

Gomez-Lobo, A. (2007). Why competition does not work in urban bus markets: Some new wheels for some old ideas. Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, 41, 26.

Goodfellow, T. (2015). Taming the rogue sector: Studying state effectiveness in Africa through informal transport politics. Comparative Politics, 47(2), 127–147.

Grava, S. (1978). Locally generated transportation modes of the developing world (TRB special report, 181). Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board.

Gwilliam, K. (2008). Bus transport: Is there a regulatory cycle? Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 42(9), 1183–1194.

Gwilliam, K. M. (2001). Competition in urban passenger transport in the developing world. Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, 35(1), 99–118.

Heinze, R. (2018). Taxi pirates: A comparative history of informal transport in Nairobi and Kinshasa, 1960s –2000s. In D. Agbiboa (Ed.), Transport, transgression and politics in African cities: The rhythm of chaos (pp. 19–41). Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge.

Hotelling, H. (1929). Stability in competition. The collected economics articles of Harold Hotelling (pp. 50–63). New York: Springer.

Ibitayo, O. O. (2012). Towards effective urban transportation system in Lagos, Nigeria: Commuters’ opinions and experiences. Transport Policy, 24, 141–147.

Kelley, E. M., Lane, G., & Schönholzer, D. (2021). Monitoring in target contracts: Theory and experiment in Kenyan public transit. Berkeley, CA: Center for Effective Global Action, University of California.

Kerzhner, T., & Martens, K. (2018). The role of labor informality in paratransit services: Case study of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Paper presented at the Transportation Resarch Board 97th Annual Meeting, Washington, DC, January 7–11.

Klein, D. B., Moore, A. T., & Reja, B. (1997). Curb rights: Eliciting competition and entrepreneurship in urban transit. The Independent Review, 2(1), 29–54.

Klopp, J. M., & Cavoli, C. (2019). Mapping minibuses in Maputo and Nairobi: Engaging paratransit in transportation planning in African cities. Transport Reviews, 39(5), 657–676.

Klopp, J., Williams, S., Waiganjo, P., Orwa, D., & White, A. (2015). Leveraging cellphones for wayfinding and journey planning in semi-formal bus systems: Lessons from digital Matatus in Nairobi. In S. Geertman, J. Ferreira, R. Goodspeed, & J. Stillwell (Eds.), Planning support systems and smart cities (pp. 227–241). New York: Springer.

Kumar, A., & Barrett, F. (2008). Stuck in traffic: Urban transport in Africa (AICD Background Paper, 1). Retrieved from

Kumar, A., Zimmerman, S., & Arroyo-Arroyo, F. (2021). Myths and realities of informal public transport in developing countries: Approaches for improving the sector. Washington, DC: World Bank, SSATP.

Madugu, Y. U. (2018). Filling the mobility gaps: The shared taxi industry in Kano, Nigeria. The Journal of Transport History, 39(1), 41–54.

Mateo-Babiano, I. (2016). Indigeneity of transport in developing cities. International Planning Studies, 21(2), 132–147.

McCormick, D., Mitullah, W., Chitere, P., Orero, R., & Ommeh, M. (2013). Paratransit business strategies: A bird’s-eye view of matatus in Nairobi. Journal of Public Transportation, 16(2), 135–152.

Moyo, D., & Olowosegun, A. (2021). Resilience of informal public transport and urban land governance in Ibadan, Nigeria. In R. Home (Ed.), Land issues for urban governance in Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 281–297). New York: Springer.

Mũngai, M. (2013). Nairobi’s matatu men: Portrait of a subculture. Nairobi, Kenya: Twaweza Communications.

Musili, C., & Salon, D. (2019). Do private transport services complement or compete against public transit? Evidence from the commuter vans in Eastern Queens, New York. Urban Science, 3(1), 24.

Mutongi, K. (2017). Matatu: A history of popular transportation in Nairobi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nakamura, S., & Avner, P. (2021). Spatial distributions of job accessibility, housing rents, and poverty: The case of Nairobi. Journal of Housing Economics, 51, 101743.

Ndibatya, I., & Booysen, M. J. (2020a). Characterizing the movement patterns of minibus taxis in Kampala’s paratransit system. Journal of Transport Geography, 92(C). https//:doi.10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2021.103001.

Ndibatya, I., & Booysen, M. J. (2020b). Minibus taxis in Kampala’s paratransit system: Operations, economics and efficiency. Journal of Transport Geography, 88, 102853.

Ocampo, R. B. (1982). Low-cost transport in Asia: A comparative report on five cities. Ottawa: IDRC.

Olvera, L. D., Plat, D., & Pochet, P. (2008). Household transport expenditure in Sub-Saharan African cities: Measurement and analysis. Journal of Transport Geography, 16(1), 1–13.

Otunola, B., Harman, O., & Kriticos, S. (2019). The BRT and the danfo: A case study of Lagos’ transport reforms from 1999-2019. London: International Growth Center.

Paget-Seekins, L. (2015). Bus rapid transit as a neoliberal contradiction. Journal of Transport Geography, 48, 115–120.

Paget-Seekins, L., & Munoz, J. C. (2016). The promise of BRT. In J. C. Munoz & L. Paget-Seekins (Eds.), Restructuring public transport through bus rapid transit: An international and interdisciplinary perspective. Bristol, England: Policy Press.

Pirie, G. (2013). Sustainable urban mobility in Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa: Global report on human settlements. Nairobi, Kenya: Un-Habitat.

Plano, C., Behrens, R., & Zuidgeest, M. (2018). Towards a stated choice methodology to determine minibus-taxi driver willingness to provide off-peak feeder service. Civil Engineering, 2018, 19–27.

Pojani, D., & Stead, D. (2015). Sustainable urban transport in the developing world: Beyond megacities. Sustainability, 7(6), 7784–7805.

Quiros, T. P., Avner, P., & Kerzhner, T. (2019). Exploring accessibility to employment opportunities in African cities—A first benchmark (World Bank policy research working paper). Washington, DC: Work Bank.

Rekhviashvili, L., & Sgibnev, W. (2020). Theorizing informality and social embeddedness for the study of informal transport. Lessons from the marshrutka mobility phenomenon. Journal of Transport Geography, 88, 102386.

Rimmer, P. J. (1980). Paratransit: A commentary. Environment and Planning A, 12(8), 937–944.

Rink, B. (2018). Place ballet in a South African minibus taxi rank. In Transport, transgression and politics in African cities. Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Rink, B. (2020). Capturing amaphela: Negotiating township politics through shared mobility. Geoforum.

Rizzo, M. (2017). Taken for a ride: Grounding neoliberalism, precarious labor, and public transport in an African metropolis. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Rodriguez-Clare, A. (2005). Coordination failure, clusters, and microeconomic interventions. Economía Journal, 6(Fall), 1–41.

Schalekamp, H. (2017). Lessons from building paratransit operators’ capacity to be partners in Cape Town’s public transport reform process. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 104, 58–66.

Spooner, D., Mwanika, J. M., Natamba, S., & Manga, E. O. (2020). Kampala bus rapid transit: Understanding Kampala’s paratransit market structure. Manchester, England: Global Labor Institute.

Stucki, M. (2015). Policies for sustainable accessibility and mobility in urban areas of Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Uzzell, D. (1987). A homegrown mass transit system in Lima, Peru: A case of generative planning. City and Society, 1(1), 6–34.

Venter, C. J., Molomo, M., & Mashiri, M. (2014). Supply and pricing strategies of informal rural transport providers. Journal of Transport Geography, 41, 239–248.

World Bank, University of Djibouti, and Ministry of Equipment and Transport. (2019). Djibouti Digital Transport Resource Center. Retrieved from




How to Cite

Kerzhner, T. (2022). Is informal transport flexible?. Journal of Transport and Land Use, 15(1), 671–689.