Hail this taxi, but hold on tight – boda-bodas swarm Kampala streets

Why We Wrote This

When urban planning, laws, and enforcement lag behind community needs, people find their own solutions. But the problems might just get bigger.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Boda-bodas in Kampala, Uganda, are a popular way to get around. A significant means of employment here, motorbike taxis are part of the city's notorious traffic, which lacks a mass transit system.

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If you’re trying to get someplace in Kampala and you have less than a couple of hours to spend in traffic, a nimble boda-boda motorcycle taxi might be your best option. It’s a mode of transportation in Uganda’s capital that has grown to employ hundreds of thousands of drivers. “Boda-bodas are a necessary evil,” says Sam Mutabazi, head of an NGO promoting urban planning.

Swarms of motorbikes gather at major intersections, revving their engines like angry hornets. Individual riders thread their way between bumpers and between lines of traffic, or they take to the sidewalk, or simply ride into oncoming traffic. Entrepreneurial solutions like the SafeBoda app – which briefly trains drivers and provides helmets for them and their passengers – are attempting to make the chaotic rides less dangerous.

But the time may soon come when even this remedy proves impossible. In the absence of an organized mass transit system (public transport in Kampala means thousands of 14-seater minibuses) or any plan to transfer jobs to satellite cities, the situation seems likely to worsen. “The problem is that the government’s short- and long-term plans are not clear,” Mr. Mutabazi says.

If you want to get across town quickly in traffic-clogged Kampala, you need a hairnet.

A 10-mile car commute in the Ugandan capital routinely takes two hours. Or you can jump on one of the city’s ubiquitous boda-boda motorcycle taxis. Safety is not their strong point, but drivers with the ride-hailing app SafeBoda at least provide passengers with a helmet. And – for reasons of hygiene – a disposable hairnet.

“Boda-bodas are a necessary evil,” says Sam Mutabazi, head of the Uganda Road Sector Support Initiative, a nongovernmental group promoting urban planning. “If you are stuck somewhere and you have urgent business, you can just leave your car and take a boda-boda” that can weave its way through the thickest of jams.

But the time may soon come when even that remedy proves impossible. In the absence of an organized mass transit system (public transport in Kampala means thousands of 14-seater minibuses) or any plan to transfer jobs to satellite cities, the situation seems likely to worsen. “The problem is that the government’s short- and long-term plans are not clear,” Mr. Mutabazi complains.

Kampala has a population of 1.8 million; another 1.7 million pour into town each morning and leave each evening in an orgy of congestion. About 70% of the country’s economic activity is concentrated in the capital, and the authorities are not considering moving any government offices or businesses into the suburbs.

With the capital’s population predicted to rise fivefold by 2040, to 10 million inhabitants, “we will have a static city where people will be spending most of their time in traffic jams” unless a solution is found, warns Mr. Mutabazi.

The government has begun work on a mile-long overpass in the center of the city, but Mr. Mutabazi does not expect that to significantly reduce the pressure. “It’s just adding more concrete to a built-up city, dropping a brand-new road into a ramshackle network,” he argues.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Orange vests and helmets help identify screened boda-boda drivers who are part of the SafeBoda mobile app's program in Kampala, Uganda. Officially, helmets for motorcycle taxi drivers and passengers are mandatory, but the law is not enforced.

In the meantime, boda-bodas rule the road, and there are an estimated 300,000 of them in Kampala. Swarms of motorbikes gather at major intersections, revving their engines like angry hornets. Individual riders thread their way between bumpers and between lines of traffic, or they take to the sidewalk, or simply ride into oncoming traffic.

You are taking your life in your hands when you take a boda-boda: A 2010 study at Kampala’s Mulago hospital, the largest in the country, found that 75% of patients admitted for trauma injuries sustained in traffic accidents had been involved in boda-boda crashes.

That has prompted a number of companies, including Uber, to get into the boda-boda business and offer clients a little more security, which has upset independent drivers, who are fighting government efforts to regulate them: The boda-boda Joint Leadership Forum recently complained about Western “companies that are engaging in the management of our boda-boda sector with unknown intentions.”

And elsewhere in Africa, Uber has come under fire for allowing its drivers to ride unsafe bikes. Six Uber Eats motorcycle drivers have died in accidents since 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa, according to an investigation by the website GroundUp, a public interest news agency in Cape Town.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
As a boda-boda driver, Julius Wandera uses a new 100cc motorcycle his father bought. He participates in a ride-hailing app that requires a day of training for its drivers.

The most visible of the Kampala ride-hailing apps is SafeBoda, whose drivers wear fluorescent orange vests emblazoned with their names, as well as distinctive orange helmets.

Julius Wandera, a friendly young man, has been driving for SafeBoda for six months on an Indian-made 100cc Bajaj Boxer bike, a popular model in the boda-boda world. He says he wasn’t being paid well at the shop where he worked before; today he can make between $10 and $12 a day. “It’s not a lot, but it’s for starters” as he gets into the business, he says. He could earn more, but he stops driving at 7 o’clock. “It’s scary riding at night.”

How does a SafeBoda driver differ from a traditional independent? Mr. Wandera did a daylong class to learn and rattles off the rules. “You have to follow the traffic lights, you mustn’t ride carelessly, you can carry only one passenger, you have to have a driving license, your bike must be in good condition, you must have discipline, you must not drink, and you must know how to speak English.”

Then he has an afterthought. “Oh, and you are not supposed to go the wrong way up one-way streets.”

The chaos that ensues when the large majority of boda-boda riders, not attached to any ride-hailing app, are not following such rules is frightening. And even for SafeBoda drivers, overtaking on the inside is standard practice.

Uganda’s long-standing president, Yoweri Museveni, has mooted a ban on boda-bodas, suggesting they should be replaced by the three-wheeler tuk-tuks so familiar in India and Southeast Asia, but it seems unlikely he was serious.

It is hard to see how the plan might ease congestion, since tuk-tuks take up more room than motorbikes. On top of that, points out Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala, an army of hundreds of thousands of young men with similar outlooks and similar aspirations could prove to be a volatile force.

“Museveni sees boda-boda drivers as a political constituency,” Professor Mamdani says. “They are untouchable.”

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