While most cities battle to figure out how to reduce use of private vehicles and enhance public transport in their city centres to cut back on congestion, Harare City Council has decided to do the exact opposite with its latest ill-advised and ill-thought out ban on kombis in the central business district (CBD).
We assume that the ban is to make it easier for councillors and senior municipal managers to drive around the city centre in their large vehicles and the inconvenience to the overwhelming majority of those who work in the city centre is of no consequence; after all they are just people who use kombis, not fortunate people who drive large cars bought by ratepayers.
Council needs to solve what we agree are the problems created by the way the kombi system works, rather than simply ban them and force tens of thousands of commuters to walk long distances each day or fork out two fares in each direction to get to work and go home. The delays and the expense to the overwhelming majority appear to outweigh the minor advantages to the few.
Even worse would be a decision by many to use their cars to come to work, since the double fares might now cover the fuel. Each kombi brings into the city and takes home 18 passengers.
If council officials want to think about a real nightmare and total gridlock they should imagine 18 private cars replacing each kombi journey, which if each kombi does 10 trips in the morning and 10 in the evening would mean each kombi replaced by 180 private cars. That would kill the CBD totally.
Before making sweeping changes, municipal managers should find out how the system actually works. The simplest way would be for every manager to leave their car at home for a fortnight and ride the kombis to and from work. The suggestion is meant to be taken seriously.
Experience from other cities shows that when those who plan systems actually use them they can make significant improvements. London’s public transport improved significantly during the terms of its first city-wide mayor because he always used public transport, and the whole system of cycle paths and rules became workable when one of his successors chose to use a bicycle for commuting.
By seeing the kombi system from both sides, officials and planners will appreciate just how well self-regulation can work and where there are glaring weaknesses in the system that can be overcome by a very modest intervention by the council.
The kombi transport system is totally private and is built around the basic economic law of supply and demand. At its best it works exceptionally well, and there is a set of best practice.
The biggest single problem is the parking of kombis at ranks and terminuses. During rush hours this is not a serious problem as kombis quickly clear for their next trip.
But during much of the day there is far less business than the full fleet demands, so you might have 20 kombis parked waiting their turn to service a particular route since a kombi cannot make money unless it carries a full load of passengers.
The council had the beginnings of a sensible policy in this regard when it wanted to have the parking done outside the CBD with kombis called into each rank as needed. This would, in practice, probably mean no more than three kombis for a particular route parked waiting to load at the rank or terminus.
That system would, however, require an efficient system of rank marshals, who would certainly have to be council employees and another set of council employees at each holding parking area, who would send the kombis in as required.
A trivial allowance for SMS or WhatsApp would keep the two sets of marshals in communication. But the council never put in those marshals so the system never worked.
Before the council objects to deploying staff for these duties it must think about how many people it must employ to enforce a city centre kombi ban. The numbers required for marshal duties will be a small fraction of those needed for enforcement.
Providing marshals would also solve the other major problem on some routes, that of simultaneous and competitive loading of kombis. There are routes where there is a high level of sensible self-regulation with kombis queuing reasonably politely and the front vehicle being the only one loading passengers.
These ranks or terminuses clear efficiently and, even more important, passengers are not harassed and do not have to wait long before their kombi is loaded and waved off. But at other ranks you see up to five kombis all going the same route and touts fighting for passengers. Passengers suffer with long delays and a great deal more harassment that even the most phlegmatic can tolerate.
We believe the council can have it both ways, less congestion and an improved service to commuters. All that is required is for councillors, officials and planners to think clearly what is required, consult widely and then work out win-win solutions.
And if officials still demand a kombi-clear CBD, then their political masters should at the very least think about how many voters use kombis and how many drive SUVs and draw the appropriate conclusion.
There is no reason to destroy a system that works rather well when regulation and consultation can minimise weaknesses and maximise gains.