Zimbabwe News

Clampdown on illegal taxis an opportunity for Zupco

The Herald

By fining passengers who use illegal public transport as well as taking more strenuous action against those who provide these services, police in Harare are obviously trying to limit the demand as well as continuing to clamp down on the supply.

But this now places a great deal of pressure on Zupco to upgrade their operational capacity, that is manage better their own fleet and the larger fleet of buses and kombis under the Zupco franchise to give Harare residents something resembling a first class public transport system.

The actual police operations under the new system started when they raided Mbare Musika and impounded long-distance buses ready to breach the lockdown regulations banning ordinary intercity transport.

The bus owners were trying to use the relaxation allowing schoolchildren to use intercity transport to get to school, but those found on the buses were not schoolchildren. So the police arrested them as well.

Police in Harare, at least in the city centre, then extended the process to mushikashika, the private cars that jam a minimum of six passengers into a very small space.

Some of these were being stopped in the city centre this week and the passengers asked to stay in the car, or get back in, while everyone went down to Harare Central. 

The main difference in treatment at the police stations between the operators and the passengers is that the passengers were released promptly on payment of a $2 000 deposit fine, the maximum that the police can levy for any offence without having to take the accused to court, while the operators of the buses and cars are being “investigated” to see if court proceedings might not be in order. 

Meanwhile they are off the road. The new approach is already having its effect. 

There are a lot fewer mushikashika on the road, and far fewer people are willing to take a chance and get into one. 

Already there is some effect, although because of ubiquity of these little cars the police can only stop and charge a minority. And already drivers are becoming even more inventive over routing, taking small side roads more often.

The routing changes were already being used before because the police were stopping mushikashika and some non-Zupco kombis, but now the drivers have support from passengers.

This clampdown gives opportunities to Zupco and should make their services more viable. 

While Zupco buses and kombis rarely leave the city centre terminuses until they are full, return journeys are sometimes made with fewer numbers, sometimes a bus or kombi can only be half full as it returns. 

But the desire to at least make one leg of the journey with a full bus means that at times during the day buses are queuing at the terminuses on many routes. 

And as Zupco have still not returned to scheduled services, this insistence on filling a bus means that the gap between buses on a particular route can be quite long. 

This gap, and the Zupco fare structure, are the main reason why the mushikashika flourished. On many routes you could catch a mushikashika within minutes of reaching a bus stop.

Although jammed, the small number of passengers meant that they were more often on the roads rather than waiting at a terminus.

The second advantage they had, on some, but not all routes, was that they were cheaper, generally at the intermediate stops. 

Zupco buses tend to operate on journeys between the city centre and a distant suburb and charge the fare for that full journey, regardless of where the passenger gets on or gets off. 

This is inevitable since if those getting on or off at intermediate stops were charged a lower fare the cheating would be impossible to control. But it is a factor for some, when the car costs $50 and the bus $60. The second advantage the mushikashika, and even unregistered kombis, had was that they offered routes that Zupco did not serve. This is changing as someone running Zupco operations has been responding to criticism and some of the franchise holders have shown a great deal of innovation in opening new direct routes.

For example, we have a couple of routes to the north-western suburbs now pass through Avondale, taking a lot of business away from the mushikashika who were running a high-price monopoly service on that route. 

At the same time you can find peak hour direct routes that miss the city centre. In Msasa industrial area for example, there are direct Chitungwiza-Msasa, Budiriro-Msasa and Glen View-Msasa services in the early morning and about half an hour after businesses close.

This is all to the good, but if the police can continue to discourage passengers grabbing the illegal services, this will channel more traffic to Zupco, so Zupco needs to think how they can use those extra passengers to make their services more viable without trying to sneak in fare doublings every few months. 

A major need is to resume timetables. If someone knows that a Zupco bus goes past their nearest bus stop at 23 minutes past every hour, or even 23 minutes past the even numbered hours, they will be at the stop a few minutes before hand. 

But even if timetabling is tricky at the moment then at least Zupco need to be working out other ways to make their services more predictable and more frequent. And they need to keep looking at those direct routes that the illegals were servicing and some franchised buses are now servicing. 

The mushikashika were operating because they were convenient, rather than because they were comfortable. Even the oldest Zupco franchised bus or kombi is a lot more comfortable than a mushikashika. 

When it comes to fares Zupco, who were forced to retreat a bit after their last increase, need to understand that almost full buses in both directions on a route produce a lot more money than a full bus in one direction and a quarter-full bus on the return trip. 

Keeping fares rational will be a market inducement for passengers to use Zupco, rather than waiting for a mushikashika or a ride in the back of a truck. 

While police enforcement can help Zupco as well as cut back on accidents and other crime, Zupco will finally win when they can service passenger needs better than anyone else at affordable fares.

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