The world population is estimated to be 7 billion and a staggering 1 billion of these people live in urban slums (informal settlements). People come to the city because they expect to improve their education and employment opportunities. However, they often end-up living in the slum areas – the shantytowns, favelas, and barrios marginales. The likelihood is that the number of slum-dwellers will increase over the next few decades. In fact, slums are so resilient that politicians and town planners/architects are beginning to abandon thoughts of slum clearance. The attention is now shifting to how the slums can be made to function more efficiently in social and economic terms.
A couple of interesting papers on this subject are:
- Mobility, Poverty, and Gender: Travel “Choices” of Slum Residents in Nairobi, Kenya by Deborah Salon, Post-Doctoral Fellow at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, and Sumila Gulyani, Sector Leader, Sustainable Development Network (Africa) The World Bank; and
- Urban Transformation In Slum Districts Through Public Space Generation And Cable Transportation At Northeastern Area: Medellin, Colombia, Carolina Blanco and Professor Hidetsugu Kobayashi, Faculty of Engineering, Hokkaido University, Japan, 2009.
The total number of slum dwellers in Nairobi is thought to be in excess of 800,000. The first paper is based in a 2004 World Bank survey of 1600 households in the slums of Nairobi. It is clear from this research that the majority of those interviewed limit their travel as much as possible, and when they need to leave the slum they are most likely to walk. Use of motorized public transport (in this case mutatu minibuses) is limited, despite relatively good connectivity provided by these services. The issue, of course, is cost.
Research on transport and travel patterns amongst the poorest people in developing countries is limited. Certainly, where research has been carried out, the survey sizes tend to be very small.
The 2004 Nairobi survey showed that 65% of working adults walk to their place of employment. Just over 30% used mutatus and 2% cycled. The percentage of commuters travelling to jobs outside the slum that used buses was higher at 45%.
Salon and Gulyani comment:
“Partially because the poorest people in cities like Nairobi do not enjoy reduced transit fares, they are forced to live close enough to employment centers that they can walk to their jobs. This results in many people with little money living in crowded, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions near the center of town, their main reason for doing so being access to jobs. A more affordable transit system with good coverage of poor neighborhoods could allow more of these people to move away from the slums and still access the same labor market.”
As I have witnessed at first hand, walking in Nairobi is made hazardous by the lack of proper sidewalks and other pedestrian facilities on the road network. A 2003 paper reported that round half of road casualties are pedestrians. The authors conclude that, given the inability of many of the urban poor to afford public transport fares, future investment in transport should focus on improving pedestrian facilities. Also, investment in cheaper forms of public transport (notably mass rapid transit), with segregation from regular motor traffic on the city’s congested road system, is justified. It is noted that ‘innovative’ policies will be required to ensure that accessibility for the urban poor is maximized without prejudicing the financial viability of any such system.
Medellin is a city of over 2 million people in Colombia. It has expanded rapidly and there has been a rapid growth in urban slum settlements on the surrounding hills. The locals call these areas cinturones de miseria – the misery belts. In Medellin, following the gang and drug problems of the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was a concerted effort to bring about a physical and social transformation of the slums. One key objective was to improve transport accessibility. Previously those living in the slums had to walk large distances to get to the Metro system and the bus network.
Blanco and Kobayashi make the interesting observation that the costs of improving infrastructure in slum areas are often higher than they would be in wealthier parts of the city. This is partly because of the sheer density of development in the slum settlements and the complex land ownership issues. In Medellin there are also constraints imposed by the topography. Never the less, it was recognized that the potential benefits from investment were considerable.
The transport solution in the Northeastern commune (home to around 230,000 people) is called the “metrocable”. Blanco and Kobayashi describe the system as follows:
“the main public massive transportation system in Medellin….. connecting by air the informal urban sector known as comuna nororiental located at the northeastern hilly area through a new massive mono-cable gondolas system (having an internal maximum capacity of 10 people per gondola and with total installed capacity to transport 3000 people per hour), known as Metrocable.”
Metrocable started operations in 2007 and is reported to carry over 65,000 passengers per day. It links the poorest communities into the city’s metro system. Apparently, it was designed and planned with a high level of community involvement. The authors report that it has been very successful in changing perceptions of the slum areas that it serves, both for residents and visitors.
Perhaps the Medellin experience offers some useful pointers for other cities with large slum settlements where social and health problems are exacerbated by poor transport accessibility. Of course, the topography will vary from city to city, but it is a constant challenge to find the means to give workers and students access to the wider public transport network. Slums may be with us for some time and we have to find innovative ways to plan better transport networks for their inhabitants.
Neither of these papers are able to offer any easy solutions on the issue of affordability of public transport. However, this is clearly also critical to the success of future planning and transport strategies.