Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

Crossing the tracks: change and dormancy in Addis Ababa’s public transportation system

Sale-Amlak Abera, 24, is an open horse cart driver, a rider. He left his day laboring work six months ago to join the transport business.


He is up early, from sunrise to early evening transporting the city’s dwellers from the neighborhoods around the head quarters of the Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA) to Wossen in Yeka Sub-city, at CMC.
The carts play a significant role in getting passengers from inner streets of their neighborhoods to the main road, where they will continue their daily commute on board the blue and white minivan taxis or city buses. On a single journey, Sale-Amlak can carry three passengers on his cart. For his service, he charges two birr per head for a single trip, a modest fee that makes up his livelihood.
There are 13 other men who, like Sale-Amlak, are cart drivers and have formed an association to operate on the route from EEA to Wossen.   
“I came to Addis from North Wollo about a year ago. Before I started driving a cart, I worked as a day laborer at one of the construction sites in eastern Addis Ababa for six months,” Sale-Amlak said.  “I prefer to be a rider because I make relatively more money than working as a day laborer,” he said. Working as a cart driver, he makes an average of 60 birr a day and as much as 150 birr on a good day, after paying for the cart’s rent.

Every day, he pays 150 birr to the cart owner. “How much cart drivers pay for the cart depends on the deal made between the driver and owner. For instance, some of the owners demand to get up to 200 birr a day,” the driver said.
Residents travelling on the EEA- Wossen route have been using this form of transport since the establishment of the neighborhood, considered as one of the newest residential locations of Addis, established about two decades ago. The cart drivers said that on average, a driver may give a ride to over 100 individuals per day, and more on busier days.
One cart has two horses that work on two shifts a day. Keeping the horses fed is a large and expensive task for the drivers. Each horse could eat up to 25kg of wheat and barley feed a day, and to keep their horses fed, drivers must buy a quintal of horse feed every two days, which can costs from 350 to 400 birr.
The cost of purchasing a cart with two horses is also significant. About two years ago, cart owners say the purchase cost was 24,000 birr. “Currently, the price has risen to 35,000 birr when you buy it from the association members,” Addisu Dagnew, a cart owner and driver said.
The EEA-Wossen route is not the only line in the area that connects passengers to the main road that extends from Megenagna to CMC. Addisu works on another route in the CMC area, from CMC to St. Gabriel. The CMC-St. Gabriel route is one of the busiest cart routes in that area; drivers working on the route have 31 carts under their association. Their association was established with the support of the area’s administration, Kebele, with the aim of upgrading their services.
Extending the connection from CMC area to St. Gabriel is another route to Goro, which is the domain of another association. And from Goro, a passenger has the option of going all the way to Weregenu. 
Left behind by development
Currently, the Addis Ababa City Road Authority (AACRA) is constructing a modern asphalt road that connects Wossen and Goro via EEA on the Light Railway Transit (LRT) overpass heading to CMC. Once complete, the asphalt road will make the cart transportation in the area redundant.
“We heard that the road which is under construction is expected to be finalized this year. So we will not be able to continue giving rides on this route,” cart drivers said.
Members of the three horse cart associations (EEA-Wossen, CMC-St. Gabriel and St. Gabriel- Goro) need to find new routes to work on or upgrade their business to keep surviving. The Kebeles in the area advised them that they have to upgrade their business and use modern vehicles.  “They recommended we buy the tri-wheeled vehicles, the Bajaj, to continue working in the transport business,” members of the associations told Capital.
Across Addis Ababa, horse drawn carts, the oldest means of public transportation in the city still exist, but are increasingly being pushed to the margins. Carts were once the main means of transportation, before the advent of automobiles. Over the years, horse carts have vanished from downtown areas and market centers but still continue to give service to city dwellers living in the fringes, and in need of access to main roads.
CMC, located in the northeastern of Addis Ababa is not the only location serviced by carts; Akaki, Kality, Jomo are also highly dependent on carts to fill transportation gaps.
Dwellers acknowledge the need for carts on their daily commute. A city dweller standing in line to board a cart on his way home told Capital, “There are no taxis, buses or other means of transportation that I can take from EEA to Wossen. The only option I have is the carts.”
Carts assist in filling gaps in the currently overburdened public transportation system, according to several studies. In peak hours, it is not unusual to see passengers queuing for horse carts as they would for minivan taxis or city buses.  Experts in the transportation sector say that carts have a big role to play in getting passengers to and from the main road, to inner streets, where their homes are located.
Over the last few years, however, the Bajaj are replacing horse carts on several residential locations across city. The Bajaj have also become an additional option for passengers seeking transportation from their homes to access roads.
A persistent public problem
Public transportation problems are not new for the capital city, but have become increasingly harsh over time for many reasons. Studies indicate that Addis Ababa’s transportation problem is exaggerated due to an aging fleet of vehicles, chaotic movements of minivan taxis, limited number of city buses and unbalanced road infrastructure. Experts say that such problems have contributed to uneven prices across the transportation system, which can be very expensive both for users and providers.
To combat these problems the government is actively implementing several schemes, including expanding road coverage to accelerate traffic flows, improving mass transportation systems by expanding city bus services, and introducing a separate mass transportation to civil servants.
For instance, the Addis Ababa Anbessa Bus Service Enterprise, which started out with five buses in 1943, has invested huge amounts of money to add more buses to its fleet and has also introduced new routes to different parts of the city.  Anbessa Bus currently bears the brunt of the city’s mobile masses, with 714 buses transporting 700,000 commuters every day.
The iconic blue and white taxis are the second major public transport providers in Addis. Currently, the estimated number such taxis is about 7,000, while the numbers of taxis bearing regional states’ plates and providing auxiliary services is 11,000. These numbers, however, are constantly fluctuating, and an exact figure of how many commuters use these taxis is not available.
According to the Addis Ababa City Road and Transport  Bureau (AACRTB), the number of taxis in the city is decreasing from year to year. The private sector’s interest to join the taxi business has significantly declined.
Public Relations Head of AACRTB, Genet Dibaba said, “Existing taxis are becoming old, and a insignificant number of new vehicles register to take taxi plate numbers,”.
Taxi owners say that after paying for fuel, and regular repairs, and given the current road infrastructure, the taxi sector is not profitable.
In 2011, the city’s Transport Bureau established a taxi zoning system for the blue and white city taxis in an effort to create a system beneficial for taxi users, owners and operators, by saving money and time. One of the major objectives of the taxi zoning system was to prevent taxis from refusing to travel long distances to maximize their income, but users and operators claim that the system has made things worse.
In addition to efforts by the government, some from the private sector have also made attempts to address lack of public transportation. A few years ago, a private transport company, Alliance City Bus, joined the sector to provide a more organized form of transportation, but it is difficult to say that it has achieved its goal. Due to high volumes of traffic and lack of road infrastructure in its planned routes, the company did not perform well. 
All hopes on the new Light Rail Transit
Leaping ahead but still in the presence of horse carts, the city has launched its latest and most modern mass transportation facility, the Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit. However, the week-old LRT is not as new as it may appear; the possibility of a metropolitan railway was first thought up and studied back in Emperor Hailesilase’s time. It has only been redesigned in recent years, and actualized at a cost of USD 475 million.
The 34.25km rail network, currently hosting 10 light trains, is considered a symbol of the country’s growth. Each train can carry 317 passengers, and in the first phase of the LRT travel will be made possible to 10 main stations and 20 smaller stations across eight of Addis Ababa’s 10 sub-cities. Kolfe Kenario and Gulele sub-cities are not included on the current service.
Funded and constructed by China, the LRT has the capacity transport 60,000 passengers per hour, when it becomes fully operational. The railway’s capacity to ease the city’s transport woes, however, remains to be seen.
Dereje Tefera, Public Relations Head of the Ethiopian Railway Corporation (ERC), said that the LRT has been visited by curious citizens from and out of Addis when it began operation last Sunday. “We consider the passengers in the past week as tourists,” Dereje said.
Over this week, long queues at the stations could be seen, each passenger eager for a ride on the Chinese-driven trains.  The LRT lines from Kalit to Menilik Square (Piazza) via Meskel Square, Mexico Square, Lideta and Merkato are open and busy transporting passengers from 6 AM in the morning to 10 PM in the evening.
“Right now, the headway for the trains is 15 to 25 minutes at every terminal but it will be improved to six minutes once the whole system becomes operational. Currently, the trains travel at a maximum speed of 30km per hour but their maximum speed is 80km per hour. We have to test the system before allowing travel at the maximum speed,” the Public Relations Head told Capital.
An additional eight trains are also expected to be added to the 10 currently on the tracks. When the LRT system becomes fully operational, the number of trains is expected to reach 41.
Managing the old with the new
Despite the excitement at the beginning of the LRT, experts warn that rather than simply leaping from roads to tracks, the City Administration has to take several, diversified measures to modernize the city transportation system.  AACRTB acknowledges this concern.
Public Relations Head of the Bureau, Genet, argues that the LRT will register change on the transport system, but she agrees that it will not solve the city’s transportation crisis. “It is difficult to say the LRT would solve the traffic problem fully, but it could bring relief to some passengers. Taxi and bus transportation should be worked on along with expanding the LRT fleet,” she said.
Also of great hindrance to a solution is the lack of detailed and reliable information about the city’s public transportation sector. For instance, the Bureau has little to no data on more informal means of transport, such as horse carts and the Bajaj. “Lack of strong studies and relevant evaluation is considered as one of the reasons for problems we see in the sector,” Genet said.
Despite such limitations, AACRTB is making wide and deep amendments to its structure to modernize Addis Ababa’s transportation system.  
“The city administration developed a new transportation policy for the city about four years ago and is now in the process of applying it,” Genet said. This new policy is expected not only to modernize but also transform the organizational structure of government’s divisions related to the transportation sector.
In the last budget year, Addis Ababa City Administration’s cabinet decided to form  a Traffic Management Agency, Public and Fright Transport Authority and Drivers and Vehicles Inspection and Control Authority as autonomous bodies under AACRTB. The fourth organization under the bureau, Addis Ababa City Road Authority, is an already existing body responsible for the construction of roads in the city.
The new entities, formed just last week, after the cabinet of Addis Ababa City Administration approved their budget on Friday, September 18, will focus on the city’s traffic activity, transport operations and vehicle and driver management systems.
“The next step will be structuring the offices and assigning adequate professionals. These offices will undertake detail studies and identify solutions for the sector and will be operational in the current budget year,” Genet added.
The recent transport policy recommends that public transportation in the city should shift to mass transportation systems, currently envisioned to include the railway, buses and to some extent midi buses. In line with the policy, a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is expected to be the next big transportation system, to be made effective over the coming years.
Amidst such changes, the blue and white taxis, much like the horse carts that preceded them, are expected to be increasingly pushed to the margins. AACRTB is currently encouraging taxi owners to use their associations, of which there are 13, to adapt by transforming their businesses into mass transportation share companies.
But, if the survival of the horse cart in the age of a metropolitan railway is anything to go by, the need for the blue and white taxis may exist for a while longer. Addis Ababa, on several occasions and by various observers, has been named a city of contrasts. In Addis, the modern exists with the traditional, hi-tech trains and low tech horse carts together solve barriers to transportation for the city’s dwellers.
The problem is not one of leaving the old and traditional for modern transportation, but rather one of skilled management of existing systems, the expansion of access to roads using both the old and the new. And Dereje, Public Relations Head of ERC agrees, “The LRT will create significant improvements to the city’s transport system, but several additional and diverse operations need to undertaken along with this new operation.”
Horse cart divers, Sale-Amlak and Addisu, are not selling off their carts anytime soon, “Until the asphalt road is finished we will continue transporting our passengers from their homes to the roads, where they can get on modern transportation, like at the railway stations at St Michael (CMC) area”.