Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

African Economics 2: Private vs. public transit

The traffic in Accra (Ghana) is incredible. A major problem is that the road network is inefficient as all traffic moving from one neighbourhood to another must pass through a single road. I had at one time believed this to be deliberate, so that in the event of a coup, traffic can be controlled from a few chokepoints.

But locals assure me that the reason is much simpler--the original plan was to have more of a grid network of roads, but after the maps were drawn up, the local chiefs sold the land needed for the extra roads. Once sold, the lands were developed, and as Ghana has no rules for expropriation, the roads could not be built.

The result is heavy traffic.

The cure is a transit system. But what kind?

Because of my experiences growing up in Toronto, it seemed unimaginable to me that a transit system could be run by any entity outside of government.

Then I saw the trotros running in Ghana.

Anyone with a minivan is free to start a service. Simply drive anywhere where there is a line of people,  suggest a destination, and see how many try to board.

People waiting at the local trotro stop at Dansoman.

At any major intersection there are one or more large areas assigned to transfering trotros. Additionally, there are known stops along major arterials and even on narrow back streets.

No one planned the location of these transfer points. They arose from the self-interested actions of the various market participants. The one near Mallam Junction is, admittedly, a little hard on traffic.

Trotro loading on Indepedence Ave.

The most interesting thing about the trotro system is its complete lack of central planning. It has arisen "organically" simply by the actions of self-interested participants. Nevertheless, it is a superior system to the parallel state transit system which tries to do the same thing.

State transit--like most buses, nearly empty.

When I saw all the state transit buses running empty I asked whether it cost more to ride the bus than the trotro. But Ghanaians have told me that the price of the bus is competitive. So the bus is empty presumably because it is not as convenient as the trotro. My contacts tell me that the system is fairly heavily subsidized, yet still doesn't compete against the humble trotro.

The main problem with the state transit system is that it is unable to respond to sudden changes in demand. The exact routes and the number of buses on each route is determined by bureaucrats who have no stake in the actual quality of the system--worse, the system reinforces bad decisions because the bureaucracy does not want to be seen to have made an error. So if empty buses shuttle back and forth along one route all day, while elsewhere thousands stand waiting for a bus that never comes, there is no incentive to change the system.

Waiting for a bus at the main bus station, Opera Square, Accra (also used as a car park).

In the privately run system, any trotro driver who sees nobody waiting to go on his normal route can change at will. Indeed, there is an incentive to do so, as it increases immediate cash flow. 

I was involved in a debate with a couple of our local contractors about transit a few weeks ago. Our naval architect was of the opinion that the private system was superior to any public system that could be developed, whereas our Ghanaian geologist was certain that a government-run system was the modern way to go. He seemed a little ashamed of the trotros.

I found his faith in government particularly disturbing, considering he was from a tribe that was displaced from its homeland by a singular government project.

Trotros at Kaneshie.

A couple of weeks ago, as we left SCC junction on the road towards Kokrobitie, I saw a very large line of people waiting for the trotro. For just a moment I had the urge to tell the driver to pull over, shout out "Bortianor!" and open the back of the truck. The driver assured me we would fill the truck, but on reflection I decided it probably wouldn't be wise. A western company has to worry about liabilities, unlike the local trotro drivers (at least they don't have to worry about them as much).

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