Over 50% of all transport-related emissions come from high-income countries, where people are more likely to own and depend on personal vehicles. Meanwhile, less than 1% is generated by low-income countries in regions like sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
In these nations’ cities, most residents rely on walking and “informal” transport systems — such as the minibus taxis found in places like Mexico City and Cape Town and the “boda bodas” (motorbike taxis) common throughout eastern Africa. These options provide a vital service in many underserved communities, where other public transport might be inaccessible, inconvenient or out of budget for residents.
As low- and middle-income countries grow their economies and vehicle ownership becomes more accessible, leveraging public transport systems will be critical to avoid locking into car-centric development and escalating emissions. Not only that, but access to reliable, affordable transport is central to economic development, linking people with jobs, education, healthcare, food and other resources.
Despite being one of the most common forms of transport globally, informal transport has largely been overlooked in national climate and development policies to date. But with targeted action and investment by governments, it can play an important role in providing sustainable, accessible and equitable transport where it’s needed most.
Informal transport services, also called “semi-formal,” “paratransit” or “popular” transport, are offered by private individuals or groups and are often not planned by a centralized government authority or are managed under limited regulations, without formal contracts. Because of this, they tend to lack set fares and schedules — unlike city buses, metro rails and other types of “formal” mass transport.
Popular transport systems vary drastically by region, employing diverse vehicles such as buses, minibuses, jeeps, for-hire two- and three-wheelers and more. They also go by a variety of local names, such as “jitneys” in the U.S., “jeepneys” in the Philippines, “matatus” in Kenya, “dala-dalas” in Tanzania, “tro-tros” in Ghana, “trufis” in Bolivia, and “tuk-tuks” across South and Southeast Asia.
In many cases, these services grew out of government or colonial-era failures to foster sustainable public transport systems. They often arise to fill a gap in the market, where formal transport fails to meet a community’s needs due to long wait times, inconvenient routes, unaffordable fares or other reasons. Unlike fixed-route, standardized bus systems, this type of entrepreneurial transit is also highly competitive and responsive to shifting market demands. That means informal systems can be more flexible in catering to people’s needs; however, it also comes with drawbacks, such as congestion on high-demand routes where providers are competing for passengers.
While comprehensive data is lacking on fleet sizes, emissions, routes and ridership, research suggests that informal transport is important in most low- and middle-income countries. Informal services represent up to 95% of all motorized trips in African cities and up to 50% of all trips in Latin American cities. They are most people’s main mode of transport, besides walking, in several of the world’s fastest-growing urban hubs, including Delhi, Lagos and Cairo. They’ve also emerged in some high-income countries — such as New York City’s “dollar vans,” which offer affordable shuttle services predominantly in low-income neighborhoods where buses and subways do not operate.
In countries where private vehicle ownership is low but growing, having convenient and affordable public transit can help slow this shift and stem rising transport emissions. Along with being more energy efficient than private cars, transporting passengers in higher-capacity vehicles can improve traffic management in urban centers, benefiting both road safety and air quality.
While formal public transport is a critical piece of the puzzle, informal transport can also play a bigger role moving forward. Over the last few decades, cities in developing countries have experienced rapid economic and population growth. Governments have often not been able to meet growing mobility demands with formal public transport services, and small-scale paratransit operators have emerged to fill this gap. Not only that, but they employ a huge workforce worldwide.
This represents an opportunity for governments to leverage systems that are already deeply ingrained in society as they work to improve public transport options and lower emissions — rather than simply ignoring informal transport (as most do now) or attempting to supplant it with a fully top-down formal network. The latter, if not done carefully, has the potential to disrupt services, raise transportation costs and affect the jobs of vehicle drivers.
To fully leverage the benefits of informal transport, countries must address a host of challenges within these systems. For starters, they may not be accessible to all riders. Lower-demand areas sometimes aren’t served at all, and drivers may charge predatory fares in part due to lack of an hourly wage. There is also much room for improvement in quality, safety and reliability. One study conducted in Kenya found that matatus (privately owned minibuses) are older than most vehicles, with an average age of 17 years. These vehicles are often overloaded and could be made safer and more comfortable for passengers.
In addition, while informal transport is often more energy efficient per passenger-kilometer traveled than private cars, individual vehicles often have higher fuel consumption. For example, many paratransit systems in sub-Saharan Africa rely on aged, used vehicles imported from higher-income countries, where proper recycling can be more expensive than exporting. Despite age regulations, fuel efficiency for vehicles like boda bodas, tuk-tuks, matatus, and passenger cars can be 2-3 times worse in the import country than in the country of origin. This may be due to emissions control technology malfunctioning or being removed before the vehicles are imported or running on lower-quality fuels. These are key opportunity areas for the informal transport sector to transition towards becoming more environmentally friendly.
Passengers disembark from a matatu (minibus) in Mombasa, Kenya. Matatus are a common transport option throughout eastern Africa but there is often much room for improvement in vehicle safety and comfort. Photo by Authentic travel/Shutterstock
First and foremost, governments should acknowledge and incorporate the informal transport sector in national policy alongside formal transport systems.
Unfortunately, where the informal transport sector has been acknowledged in the past, governments have generally taken one of two approaches: either banning vehicles from city centers or replacing them with formal public transport, often without considering existing operators. This not only risks the livelihoods of transport workers who rely on informal systems — including drivers, conductors, mechanics and others — but may also deprive vulnerable residents of an affordable transport option. Successfully leveraging these systems will require careful planning and investment to avoid such harmful side effects.
Informal transport systems vary drastically across regions, so no single set of policy guidelines will work in every scenario. There are, however, cross-cutting areas where governments and others can take action to maximize the benefits of these services while improving riders’ experience and reducing emissions.
City officials cannot address pollution from informal transport without consistent, quality data on the number of vehicles in operation, how far they travel each day, their average fuel efficiency and emissions, and whether there are frequent inefficiencies, such as long idling times while waiting for passengers. At present this data is collected only in small clusters, if at all, and is not always publicly available.
A coalition of transport and climate organizations, the Transport Data Commons Initiative, has developed an open-source platform to help fill these knowledge gaps and provide a centralized database. Once baseline data is available, tailored solutions can be applied, such as electrification; vehicle repairs and upgrades to increase safety; deploying higher capacity vehicles along popular routes; connecting riders with drivers to reduce waiting times, and more.
Better mapping of informal transit routes can also help identify inefficiencies and improve services for riders. Governments, local communities of practice, universities, nonprofits and the private sector can all play a role here. For example, Digital Transport for Africa (DT4A), which unites a global community of data collectors and open contributors, provides open data sets for transit systems in African cities. This can be used to support everything from route planning to electrification and emissions calculation. In Bolivia, the mobile app Trufi provides route options integrating buses, microbuses and informal Trufi taxis, with an option for users to report missing routes and contribute new data.
Not only do these kinds of apps improve data on coverage and efficiency, but they can benefit riders, too; for example, by allowing them to e-hail vehicles. Many passengers, especially women, see app-based services as safer due to driver training and improved safety standards.
Improving the popular transport sector also offers a key avenue for governments to mitigate transport-related safety, climate and air quality issues. This could include implementing initiatives such as vehicle scrappage and fleet renewal programs to upgrade to cleaner and safer vehicles; vehicle roadworthiness inspections; and offering financial literacy and business skills training to drivers and operators. A vital first step for countries is to acknowledge the popular transport sector and its associated emissions in their national sustainability plans and in their national climate plans (NDCs).
A city street in Iquitos, Peru is packed with three-wheeled mototaxis. Informal services like these are a primary mode of transport in many of the world’s fastest-growing cities, but governments often don’t formally acknowledge or invest in them. Photo by 12MN/iStock
Policymakers must carefully assess the potential benefits and drawbacks of interventions in this sector, including costs and timeframes, and ensure that actions are context-specific and non-punitive. Government subsidies may be necessary, particularly in the case of larger-scale reforms. For example, in Mexico City, the transportation ministry identified high-traffic corridors and created an incentive program to pay $100,000 Mexican pesos (about $10,000 USD) for each jitney scrapped and replaced with a larger bus. The program both improved efficiency and provided the operators who volunteered to participate with more reliable contracted jobs offering stable incomes and social security benefits. But jitneys were not eradicated from the city; over 1,000 routes still serve 11.5 million passenger trips daily.
When options are limited, governments should prioritize investments in informal services and infrastructure that can bring substantial benefits to their most vulnerable citizens.
Finally, governments can implement policy measures and financial incentives to support electrification of informal vehicle fleets. This could include low-interest loans, building charging infrastructure or allocating financial aid for pilot programs. In northern India, for example, the Rejuvenation of Auto-Rickshaw in Amritsar through Holistic Intervention (RAAHI) project was launched to transition the city’s three-wheeler transport system to electric vehicles. Vehicle owners receive an initial subsidy as well as low-interest loans from the State Bank of India to replace diesel three- wheelers that do not meet emissions standards.
While electrification will be critical for reducing transport emissions in the long term, including from informal transport, countries may face near-term hurdles. In cities where residents have limited access to reliable electricity, adding EVs to the local demand could strain the electrical grid. And in places where most power generation comes from fossil fuels (such as in South Africa, which relies on 90% coal power), electric vehicles may be drawing primarily from dirty energy sources. Efforts to electrify informal transport should therefore be coupled with measures to improve energy supply and reliability and increase renewable generation.
Through deliberate improvements, informal transport can act as a powerful brake on the rapid rise of private vehicle usage, helping to both curb greenhouse gas emissions and improve transport access for people worldwide. To learn more about how these services can support climate and development goals, and what countries can do to leverage their potential, see: “Connecting Informal Transport to the Climate Agenda: Key Opportunities for Action” and “Informal and Semiformal Services in Latin America: An Overview of Public Transportation Reforms.”
Cross-posted from WRI Insights
Anna Kustar – Anna is a Research Analyst for the Urban Mobility program at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. She works on identifying and sharing new technologies in the transportation sector, as well as advocating for urban transit solutions that move people, not cars. Anna works in areas of public transport, rising transportation technologies, active mobility and community safety.
Thet Hein Tun – Hein is a Senior Transportation Research Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, where he manages projects and conducts research on innovative mobility enterprises, transport electrification, open mobility data and transport mapping, and paratransit systems in the developing world, especially in East Africa and India. Hein also coordinates program management on DigitalTransport4Africa (DT4A), which maps, digitizes, and curates informal mass transit systems in African cities.
Ben Welle – Ben Welle is a Director of Integrated Transport & Innovation at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Ben’s work includes leading global research and projects, particularly in the areas of public transport, minibus services, mobility planning, access to opportunities, new mobility and innovation, traffic safety, walking & cycling, and public space. Prior to this role, Ben was Senior Associate for Urban Mobility at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, working on many of the same issues. Prior to working at WRI, he was assistant director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C., researching and consulting on city parks, public space, green infrastructure, transport planning, and related economic impact.