Tricycle boom offers alternative to public transportation in Lilongwe

Wonderful Hunga, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 28 July 2015

Lilongwe may not feature as one of the world's future megacities, but urbanization and population boom is taking its toll on the city's public transportation. Almost two decades ago, Malawi had an efficient and reliable public transportation system but reforms that came with Structural Adjustment Programmes in the early 1980s to the mid 1990s compelled the government to let go of its role in transportation. Then, private players came into the market.

Market liberalization saw the boom of privately-owned minibuses and buses taking over the road transportation sector. Without any official city lines, urban transportation in Lilongwe was quickly taken over by minibuses operating along all sorts of routes in the city at fixed rates. While the minibuses and taxis have provided Lilongwe's residents with some form of reliable but costly and inefficient transport, tricycles (commonly known as BAJAJ) are providing a new alternative to public transportation.

Public transportation in Malawi has been a source of excitement and despair. An internet search on the topic reveals a horde of articles and rave reviews mostly authored by visitors and tourists about how funny it is to be on minibuses or bicycle taxis. Other articles express frustrations on how difficult it is to get fast and efficient transport in Malawian cities. Taxis are expensive, usually charging USD $10 for shorter routes within Lilongwe. One research article describes Malawi's transportation as one of the least-developed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Getting on a minibus in Lilongwe usually means waiting until the minibus is full. This can take up to an hour, to the chagrin of those in a hurry. A minibus should not legally take more than 14 passengers, but buses are routinely overloaded to compensate for high fuel costs. Local routes cost between USD $0.40 and $0.80. Taxi hire for the same route costs USD $8-12.

However, things have started to change, thanks to tricycles. Two years ago, tricycles were a Bollywood phenomenon only seen in Indian movies, but now they are quickly taking care of the transport needs of Lilongwe urbanites on the move. Today in Lilongwe, five minutes can hardly pass without seeing a tricycle. Initially, passengers were wary of getting on the BAJAJ because it was new. But now residents have realised that for fast transportation, the BAJAJ is an excellent option. Only three people are required for it to depart. In fact, it would take four tricycles to make up a full minibus - so the BAJAJ is proving to be a compelling option.

In addition, Lilongwe's roads are congested with private motor vehicles driven by the rising middle class. Minibuses would get stuck in these jams, adding to the congestion. But the BAJAJ snake around traffic, to the advantage of those in hurry.

A few years ago, the tricycle was a Bollywood phenomenon to most Malawians, but they have now arrived in Lilongwe, offering convenience and affordability to residents.

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