A Parisian in Kampala
An experiential account of urban mobility
Three months into my internship at Cape Town based urban mobility consultancy ODA I was offered the opportunity to join the team responsible for preparation of a new project in Kampala, Uganda aimed at improving urban mobility in the Greater Kampala Metropolitan Area (GKMA). Although the three months I had spent in Cape Town prepared me for life outside my beloved Paris, I knew that Cape Town was unique in many ways and I was excited about the prospect of joining the team on their first mission to Uganda.
The rather gruelling flight from Cape Town to Kampala via Nairobi could not dampen my excitement when we landed at Entebbe airport on a rainy Monday morning. The view of Lake Victoria was spectacular. After a 50-minute drive on the Chinese built Entebbe – Kampala highway we hit the first traffic jam at a junction called Shoprite – my senses were filled with the sights and sounds of overfull minibus-taxis and swarming motorcycle-taxis (called boda-bodas) – a sensory experience that becomes part of one’s daily life in Kampala.
From there to the hotel, I couldn’t help staring through the window at the crowed taxis stuck next to us in what seems like never ending gridlock. As a kid who grew up in France, I realised that we take well maintained streets and a functioning metro or bus service as a given. In Kampala, proper sidewalks are scarce, and potholes are numerous and to top it off I was surprised to discover the existence of big sections of dirt road at the very centre of the city.
After settling down at our hotel downtown, we decided to take a walk in the city centre and to go check out the Old taxi Park. It didn’t take long before we faced out first difficulty: crossing the street. As the flow of minibus taxis, cars and boda-bodas is never-ending, one must cross the road hoping that somehow the vehicles will slow down. As we got closer to the centre, I was amazed at the buzzing street life: sidewalks were swarming with street vendors and Kampalans in a hurry.
When we finally arrived at the taxi park, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Like true millennials, we immediately started taking pictures of what was in front of us: hundreds of minibus-taxis parked on a bright red muddy ground, so close against one another that I wondered how they could ever drive out of there.
We spent the following few days in the field guided by Joan, a Makerere University urban planning graduate. Talking to Joan I realised how different my commuting experience as a student was from hers. I’m used to taking the public bike-share, metro and train to get around for my studies, but none of these modes exist in Kampala. Joan usually takes the minibus-taxis to go anywhere except when she is late or has to be somewhere at a very precise time, in which case she hops on a boda-boda to avoid congestion. To illustrate the functioning of these two modes she arranged for us to take a number of trips in the city, making use of both boda-boda and a minibus-taxis.
Navigating our way through some of the busiest corridors of the city, we used the more agile boda-bodas. This was quite an experience and I was a bit anxious especially since they usually don’t provide helmets and one observes a fair degree of reckless driving. However once on the back of the motorcycle my fear was replaced by the thrill of driving through traffic at high speed, moving in-between cars, skimming vehicles and even driving on the sidewalks. My first boda – boda ride ended up being a very exciting and liberating experience. However, there is a grim reality behind this transport mode: that of the very frequent accidents and the resulting injuries or even fatalities. Kampala’s Mulago Hospital is full of patients admitted for trauma injuries linked to boda-boda crashes and people that went there to see it depict a very shocking vision.
The following day, we went to the taxi park at around 10am to go to Kira (an area in the north east of the city) using a minibus-taxi. It was not rush hour yet it still took us more than 30 minutes just to exit the taxi park. Other than that, the minibus-taxi experience in Kampala is rather similar than in Cape Town.
My impression of the field visit to Kampala is that the city is going through an urban mobility crisis, which if left unattended may lead to a meltdown (or more appropriately a chronic state of gridlock). For Joan, getting around is difficult, sometimes even dangerous, due to a lack of infrastructure and regulation. Along with 80% of the population (the share of Ugandans under the age of 30) she is part of the generation who will be inheriting and who will be making a living in the country and especially in the city over the next decades. They need to develop a compelling vision of what they want their city to look like, and how they want to see people move in the city in years to come.
In my opinion, the role of alternative and eco–friendly modes of transport should be featured in this vision. Due to an oversupply of vehicles in the city air pollution is rapidly increasing, making it an issue that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later. As still more than half of Kampalans walk to get around, investments should be made in non–motorised transport (NMT) infrastructure so that people can safely walk or cycle to get to their destination but also access all public transport services all other services and amenities. E-hailing is already widely used in the city to provide safer transport services (be they for cars or boda-bodas) demonstrating that technology should be a key driver of change for transport in Kampala.