Community, Diaspora and Immigration

The trouble with Kampala’s public transport system

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When Pioneer Services’ buses started business last year, they came in to avert a transport crisis caused by a taxi strike. And now, Utoda, the umbrella body, which runs most taxis, says it is to start a bus service, just as the Pioneer buses stand grounded at Namboole Stadium. The body has so far imported 30 of over 200 Tata buses, which it says it will use in the city to replace 14-passenger taxis.

Utoda’s (Uganda Taxi Drivers and Owners Association) buses join a series of actions that has been taken to improve the efficiency of Kampala’s transport system. And nearly all of them, including the most recent Pioneer Bus Services, have all been dogged with some form of trouble or other, with some dying a natural death.

Pioneer Bus Services’ managing director, John Masanda, said last week that solving the problem of Kampala’s public transport in the long term would require doing away with few-passenger carriers, like 14-passenger taxis, and using large carriers like buses. Even then, as the Utoda’s buses join the industry to cash in on this new sense of direction, questions stand on how public transport can be effectively streamlined, because in the past, attempts have been made and failed.

It is a situation where bus companies find themselves disadvantaged in a free market competition economy, and where they say they need a little push from the government to make it work.

Past failures
Taxis have remained a constant sight, even as bus company after bus company has started and failed, going back all the way to when the Uganda Transport Company (UTC) buses were in operation. There was a City Link bus service that started in the late 1990s, promising cheaper rates than taxis. The buses, for instance, charged Shs300 where taxis charged Shs500, for a trip from say Ntinda to Kampala. But it soon went off the road, after reportedly failing to balance its books, and only surfaced later.

A series of other buses, owned by individuals have also come and gone. Private individuals who did not possess fleets but single buses owned most of these as well. Industry players say the failures have largely been due to a failure of making good business out of the buses, a fact hugely influenced by the presence of taxis on the roads.

Mr Masanda says that private companies alone cannot solve the public transport problem in Kampala. Government will have to get involved, he says, both as a regulator in terms of putting in place policies to oversee public transport, and, supporting bus companies as well.

Mr Masanda says the issue of bus stops comes in handy in calling for a government policy for public transport. He says that the advantage taxis still have over buses today would not be sustainable if there was a policy limiting passenger carriers to picking and dropping passengers at predetermined slots.

Mr William Katumba, Utoda’s chairperson for Kampala, told reporters last week that his association would collaborate with Tata to construct bus terminals for buses. The location of where to find buses influences its competitiveness in the market. Mr Masanda says, in the agreement his company had with government, Pioneer was supposed to construct bus terminals, however, this required locating favourable and accessible land, purchasing the land, developing it, all which cost money, and yet it would become a public utility. The government, he said would come in to help companies establish these.

Another form of infrastructure dedicated to buses that Mr Masanda calls for is priority lanes in the centre of the city. These lanes, sections of the road where passenger-ferrying buses would be given priority over other vehicles, are a common feature in cities around the world, and yet, we have none here, he says. These make transport more efficient, especially in terms of hastening the speed of transport during rush hours.

In the end however, the biggest problem that has made the use of passenger buses problematic is the inability to make profit at the end of the day.

Low return on investment
“The rate of returns is a challenge,” Mr Masanda says. “If the passengers are not there, if you cannot get exclusivity on the routes, you can’t compete. And when the costs come in, you are out of business,” he says. This is especially the case when the costs of running the bus service are compared to running taxis. “It is a capital intensive business. It costs $120,000 per bus, which is enough to buy you 10 or more taxis,” he says. The failure to recoup this money makes bus passenger carriers unsustainable.

As Utoda plan to inject another 240 buses on the road, questions rise about whether the market in Kampala can support all the players, if even the few that have come before have failed. But Mr Masanda says it can.

“In the current market, there are around 8,000 matatus (14-passenger taxis) serving Kampala. About two million people use public transport in Kampala. It would take 2,000 buses to replace all the taxis in Kampala,” he says. “The market is very big.”

So, with the Pioneer buses at full capacity of 500 buses, and with Utoda’s 240 buses, when they finally all arrive, there would be a gap of 1,300 buses worth of passengers to fill. It is a situation that means that until there are enough buses to ferry all Kampala passengers, taxis will still have to ferry passengers through the city, a feat the companies already say competes them out of business.



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