Pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions around the world have presented a unique opportunity to examine how communities use shared spaces when normal routines are interrupted and fewer cars are on the roads. In late May and early June 2020, Amend conducted surveys to gain insight into how COVID-19 is affecting mobility and road safety around three of the cities where we work: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Accra, Ghana; and Maputo, Mozambique. Some of the findings were unexpected.
We interviewed urban and rural residents by telephone and divided the respondents into four groups: car drivers and motorcycle riders, road safety instructors, teachers, parents, and schoolchildren.
Around the globe, communities have reported that home sequestering and the closing of businesses and schools have resulted in substantially fewer autos on the roads. Yet that hasn’t always resulted in safer roads. Overall, roads seem to feel safer to most people, and crash incidences are down, but with lowered traffic volume (fewer autos, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, and roadside vendors), cities and towns all over the globe have reported higher incidences of speeding and reckless driving. The communities we surveyed in Africa reflected similar concerns.
As lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted, the world is seeing more people return to the streets, but in altered ways. For instance, to avoid spending extended time in close quarters, many people are avoiding public transport — busses and trains — and instead are walking, cycling, and driving their own vehicles, if they have them. This is where outcomes take some unique turns among the African regions we surveyed.
Motos and boda bodas
Two-wheeled transport is popular in Africa, and the public frequently uses motorcycle taxis (motos / boda bodas) to get around. In Ghana, moto use appeared to have plummeted during lockdown. But in Tanzania and Mozambique, it did not. As lockdown progressed, many moto operators lost business but continued to offer rides, especially in rural areas, sometimes for reduced rates. While motos offer the advantage of open-air travel, they also pose a proximity risk, as passengers sit close to drivers. According to some of our surveys, as customers became scarce and money became tighter, riding “mishikaki” (two or more passengers) became more common, increasing virus-transmission risks.
Drivers and passengers alike conveyed a spectrum of attitudes toward COVID-19, ranging from denial that it exists to strict use of protective equipment (masks, face shields) and hand sanitizer, though hygiene approaches vary from area to area. In rural Tanzania, we found that some boda boda stands offered buckets of water, but in general, personal-hygiene practices and use of protective equipment was no different from pre-COVID-19. Elsewhere, we found that the majority of people were wearing masks and routinely washing hands. We also note that, in many rural areas, both soap and masks are locally made and quality is unregulated.
Some moto drivers reported that, with business low, they didn’t even hesitate to carry passengers, who may be sick, to the hospital.
Issues of virus-protection equipment bisects curiously with road-safety equipment. One moto rider told us that most passengers refuse to wear helmets because they are used by multiple other people. Those who agree to use a helmet usually sanitize it or cover their hair with a handkerchief before wearing. In Tanzania, there was an overall loss of transport availability because vehicles were being apprehended by traffic police and municipal councils, due to failures to comply with safety restrictions and measures. Elsewhere, passengers complained of rides becoming more expensive because drivers had to take alternative, longer routes, owing to roadblocks.
Parents, children, teachers, and drivers alike frequently reported an increase in speeding and reckless driving, a concern that became amplified as cities started to loosen lockdown restrictions. One responder said, “There is still reckless driving ongoing. During the lockdown, there were fewer cars and less activity in town due to the restrictions, but now, activities are gradually increasing and people are in a hurry to get to work.”
A young person confirmed: “The few times I have been sent on errands, I encountered difficulty crossing the streets because the cars are speeding. I feel frightened when I’m at the roadside.”
Where road safety infrastructure — from signage to sidewalks — has long lacked in many of these communities, road safety education is critical. One parent expressed concern that, with schools closed and children housebound, younger children might lose their safety knowledge and practice: “Children’s consciousness and awareness about road safety will be fading away in their minds since most of them are indoors and are not using the roads as they used to during their journeys to school. Generally, children are safer now.”
We’ve not yet seen municipalities take any meaningful measures to enhance road safety during the pandemic, such as improving/expanding pedestrian or bicycling areas, aside from some police enforcement.
Many of the people we surveyed from every group — road safety instructors, teachers, parents, and schoolchildren — said greater police enforcement was needed. Yet an even larger number emphasized the importance education for all road users, drivers, riders, and pedestrians alike, young and adult.
Therefore, Amend suggests that traffic police be supplied with ample safety gear — masks, face shields, and gloves — that will help protect and allow them to feel more confident performing their jobs.
We also suggest that road safety awareness be included with COVID-19 awareness and education in all communities.
For example, in the in Arusha region of Tanzania, the nongovernmental organization Center for Women and Children Development (CWCD) has collaborated with the District Council of Arumeru region to distribute messages, in a native language, encouraging boda boda drives to keep using helmets but to air them out while riding between fares.
And most of all, it is imperative that, as communities reopen and school resumes, municipalities consider the greater numbers of people who are walking and cycling rather than taking buses or taxis to get where they need to go. Creating roads that are safer for pedestrians and cyclists offers both short- and long-term health and safety advantages. And, as always, we emphasize that, when roads are made safe for children, they are safe for everyone.