Informal Transportation Challenges and Innovations in World Cities
Livable Cities & Resilient Infrastructure
Sustainable Supply Chain

Informal Transportation Challenges and Innovations in World Cities

City streets of developing countries are characterized by small, private, and commercial vehicles that make up the informal transport sector.

Although they vary in name and mode — three-wheeler tuk tuks in Sri Lanka, poda poda minibuses in Sierra Leone and okada motorcycle taxis in Nigeria — they all provide vital mobility services while simultaneously deepening some of the worst side effects of urban transportation.

Traffic in Lagos, Nigeria
Congested traffic in Lagos, Nigeria.

Last year, the Nigerian government announced a ban on commercial motorcycles and tricycles in Lagos, one of Africa’s largest mega-cities. In a desperate bid to ease the city’s grinding urban congestion, officials outlawed the ubiquitous for-hire motorbikes known as okadas in major residential and business hubs, leaving millions of residents effectively immobile.

According to a recent piece the news outlet Quartz, the problem is that “existing state-owned bus and ferry transport services alongside private operators of commercial transport buses cannot cater to the transport needs of the city’s [15] million residents.”

This seems to represent a defining challenge for the types of dense, sprawling and highly-populated urban centers that are emerging as world cities in the 21st century. Populations have skyrocketed, leaving public transit or private car ownership in their shadow, and consequently, different forms of informal mobility economies have become vital services for people.

“Informal transport performs a critical function in developing nations, often providing mass mobility and, as such, is usually tolerated by public officials,” says Leigh Glover, former Director of the Australasian Centre for the Governance and Management of Urban Transport. However, cities that rely on informal transport are typically “plagued with mobility problems,” from road congestion and air pollution to dangerous road conditions.

Tuk-tuk taxi
A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi often associated with the informal transportation sector.

The real challenge of informal transport, says Glover, is that all these factors “interact to produce a system that may appear chaotic, but within this chaos is a stability that prevents the development of superior arrangements for improved passenger mobility.” In effect, this ends up “undermining public transport in developing nations with cheaper fares and direct services, making the task of public transport more difficult.”

Another challenge is due to its inherent nature, informal transport lacks data, according to a report by the International Association of Public Transportation (UITP), making outreach by authorities for better management, difficult. Regulators suffer from a lack of awareness of the intricacies of the sector, and concentrate on managing traffic or controlling fares.

The UITP identifies strengths and weaknesses on the informal transportation sector on the basis of providing insights for transforming it to be more resilient and sustainable.


transports millions of urban residence, flexible options of transport methods, dynamic, agile and adaptive, subsidy-light, open to innovation, provides employment opportunities, provided essential services during the pandemic for people and commodities.


Low or no social safety net, no benefit from economies of scale, limited access to funding for innovation/efficiency, quality standards, lack of impact awareness, territorial, lack of data and industry expertise.

There have been excellent models in emerging cities for innovation in public transportation including pre-booking, payment, scheduling and real-time data apps in developing nations, but applications focusing on informal transportation are rarified.

However, one company, WhereIsMyTransport, focuses on connecting, digitizing and centralizing map transportation networks for anyone to use.

WhereIsMyTransport “maps entire local public transportation networks, produces points of interest data from centers of activity, and generates real-time alerts from road and mobility networks.”

Data acquisition remains only one piece of the puzzle. Goal posts and public policy have not been clearly defined with local stakeholders, and creative, sustainable solutions remain elusive for holistic transformation strategies.

informal transportation innovations

What types of innovations do you think are needed to reform this vital sector? Have you ever ridden informal transportation? When and where? We would love to hear from you!


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