DAR ES SALAAM – Sweaty passengers crammed into battered buses and stuck in traffic jams look on enviously as Tanzania’s shiny new commuter buses fly by on the pristine asphalt of dedicated highway lanes.
In Dar es Salaam, the East African country’s biggest city of five million people, rush hour has always meant chaos, until now.
The first phase of a new bus rapid transit system opened earlier this year offering a swift, clean alternative to the traditional “dala dala” buses, a twist on the English word “dollar” coined in the 1970s when the system started as an answer to inadequate public transport.
The new route cuts through 20 kilometres (12 miles) of the seaside city with two lanes of tarmac running down the middle of the existing highway.
When completed the route will extend for 130 kilometres, separated from the traffic by a crash barrier that prevents motorists from taking advantage of its free-flowing smoothness.
‘Unique in East Africa’
“Every day, hundreds of thousands of people lose time, and therefore money, in traffic jams, which have become a very big problem in Dar es Salaam,” says Robert Lwakatare, head of the government agency responsible for overseeing the Dar Rapid Transit (DART) project.
A recent study estimated that traffic jams cost the Tanzanian economy $188 million (167 million euros) a year.
“It’s amazing,” says one young passenger who gave just her first name Judy, as a Chinese-made bus with bright blue-tinted windows pulls up to the platform.
There are 140 buses and 27 new stations in the transit system, enough to meet demand for the time being.
“Before I took two to two and a half hours to go into the centre of Dar es Salaam, and now it takes me 30 minutes,” Judy said after scanning her ticket at an automated gate.
“This might seem normal in Europe, but it’s not in our countries,” says Lwakatare. “All this is unique in East Africa.”
The clean vehicles themselves are a far cry from the dilapidated dala dalas, of which there are 7,000 registered in Dar es Salaam today, according to African Development Bank figures.
The drivers on the new buses wear short-sleeved shirts, ties and neatly pressed trousers and politely ask passengers to sit before starting off. Aboard the dala dalas, passengers find any space they can, while drivers shout and conductors hang precariously from open doors.
‘People still need us’
The first phase of construction cost $290 million (260 million euros), mostly funded by a World Bank loan, and Tanzania is relying on the African Development Bank to fund the remainder of the project.
Lwakatare says that around 100,000 people already use the new buses every day, a figure predicted to rise to 300,000 in the months ahead.
Costing 400-800 Tanzanian shillings ($0.18-0.37, 16-32 euro centimes) the ticket price is a little more expensive than on the dala dalas, which are destined to be phased out as the new system comes online.
Part of the budget is earmarked for compensating dala dala owners, who have also been included in a private sector consortium to operate the network in partnership with the government DART agency.
A dala dala tout named Justin, in faded jeans and an old green and grey jumper, views the new buses and what they mean for his future with equanimity.
“For the moment, people still need us because the blue bus does not go everywhere and are a bit more expensive.”
“Later, we’ll see,” he says with a shrug, “but I think there will always be a need for a cheaper service.”