A motorbike taxi carries three passengers past a trading center in the village of Kogelo, west of Kenya's capital of Nairobi. Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Dangerous as they may be, “boda boda” motorbikes have filled a public need created by poor government transit planning.

Here in the U.S., you might occasionally catch two people riding on the same small motorbike. Generally, this is on a small neighborhood street, and the two people on board are not total strangers. But across the ocean in East Africa, it’s different.

There, narrow roads and heavy traffic often bring a sea of buses and cabs to a complete standstill. It’s common to see motorbikes zoom through the crowds to get riders to their destinations. Many carry two people, but sometimes an entire family can share the same ride. They’re known as boda bodas, or motorbike taxis. And in the rapidly urbanizing countries of Uganda and Kenya, where transit infrastructure has yet to catch up, they’ve become a prominent and popular stopgap mode of public transportation. They're cheap and efficient, able to snake around the traffic messes that plague the cities daily.

“During peak hours, there are so, so many,” says Amanda Ngabirano, a city planning adviser and a professor of urban planning at Makerere University in Uganda. Speaking from Taiwan, where she was representing Africa in the annual Velo-city Global conference, she says the motorbikes’ dominating presence—at least in Uganda—is largely a result of poor urban transit planning by the government.

According to a recent World Bank report, Uganda’s urban population is expected to hit 20 million by 2040, up from 6 million in 2013. But the country suffers from poorly connected cities and mobility constraints. Traditional forms of public transportation are unaffordable to low-income workers, many of whom live outside of the city they work in. Meanwhile, private ownership of cars is on the rise among the rich, which further exacerbates the country’s traffic problem.

“Our cities are really scattered [in terms of] where people live and work, where kids go to school, and where the markets are,” says Ngabirano. “Everything is everywhere… .” Parents, she adds, must wake their kids up at 5 a.m. just to get a jump on hours of traffic to get to school on time.

Almost two thirds of the urban population walk to work, according to the report, but boda bodas have become attractive options. “When it comes to rainy seasons, and people are afraid of walking on the muddy roads, they find the boda boda much easier to use,” says Ngabirano. It’s not uncommon for passengers to have a driver’s personal phone number handy so they can schedule pick-ups. Today there may be as many as 300,000 boda bodas in Uganda alone.

Since their introduction in the mid 1900s, boda bodas have become a unique part of the region’s culture and economy. The boda boda business could become the second largest mode of employment in Uganda after agriculture, according to a 2013 report by the Pan-African banking group Standard Bank. In Kenya, the industry generates $4 million daily, according to the Motorcycle Assembly Association of Kenya.

With little to no formal training required, driving boda bodas appeals to jobless youth. People ages 18-30 make up a staggering 64 percent of the unemployed in Uganda. Widespread unemployment is one of the largest barriers to economic development in sub-saharan Africa. In Kenya, the World Bank reports, nearly 17 percent of males ages 15-24 are jobless. And tens of thousands of men become boda boda drivers every year in Tanzania, according to The Guardian. “Almost anyone who can ride a bicycle can ride a boda boda motorcycle,” Fred Muhumuza, a leading development economist in Uganda, told the news organization.

Motorbike taxis wait for clients outside the evacuated Garden City shopping Mall in Kenya's capital of Nairobi. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

But people’s attitudes toward boda bodas aren’t always positive. Ngabirano says it’s a “delicate” balance between love and hate. While a lucrative business, boda bodas are commonly know as “silent killers.”

Stories out of the region are horrifying but all too common: A mother and her infant died last year while taking a boda boda in Kenya, a crash between a truck and a motorbike taxi killed a student on his way to primary school in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, and a Kenyan rider died after his motorbike was knocked down by a van. Boda bodas exist in a region that sees some of the highest rates of road deaths, with 26.6 fatalities per 100,000 people in 2013 alone. Cyclists, pedestrians, and motorcycle riders make up nearly a half of all road deaths. Without sufficient laws requiring helmets or licenses, boda bodas make up as much as half of all road accidents in some countries. (Ngabirano says bicycle taxis can be risky, too, but to a lesser degree.)

At the beginning of this year, the Kenyan government began cracking down on boda bodas with new regulations aimed at curbing crashes. The new law requires both riders and passengers to wear helmets, and operators to have both a driver’s license and insurance, among other things. Violators can be fined up to $200 or be jailed.

Uganda has put some regulations in place, and local entrepreneurs are looking to technology for help. There’s Safeboda, for example, a mobile app that lets passengers book reliable rides—ones equipped with helmets and riders trained in road safety and first aid.

Yet, despite these interventions, Ngabirano doesn’t think boda bodas are sustainable. The government hasn’t been able to fully regulate them, they’ve become popular vehicles for crime, and they’re a major source of air pollution. What countries like Uganda need, she argues, is the infrastructure for a efficient mass transit system, with support for vans, buses, and even streetcars. “I wish the government would focus their energies on not just improving the road infrastructure but reorganizing public transport and bringing in bigger-capacity vehicles,” she says.

Ngabirano admits she used to ride the motorbike taxis all the time. “They were so convenient,” she says. “But I always got something: Either an exhaust pipe would bang my leg or they would almost throw me down.” These days, she prefers to walk or ride her own bicycle. Even so, roads in her country lack bike lanes that would make that mode of transport safer.

“City dwellers are held captive, even those with private cars,” she says. “Because they don’t have a better way of moving.”

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