Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Organizing a Public Transportation System Through Swarm Creativity

On a hot and steamy Thursday morning last July I went with my Ghanaian friend to the “37” Trotro hub in Accra, to learn more about how the Trotro system operates. The Trotro hub is a huge walled-in place of dusty mud, overcrowded with people, little buses, and taxis. Like ants coming and going to their hive on ant roads, hundreds of Trotros enter in a never-ending stream the huge place, while at the exit a similar flow of vans streams out. Inside the place, the little buses seem to cover every inch. What is not taken up by Trotros is plastered with little booths where street vendors sell drinks, dried fruits, pastries, sunglasses, newspapers, mobile phone cards and all the others things travelers might need. Besides the Trotros and the sales booths passengers squeeze by, always ready to jump to the side when a Trotro inches by to its destination, whatever that might be. In a bird’s eye view, the entire station looks like the proverbial anthill, with Trotros, sales booths, and passengers all chaotically intermingled, without a recognizable pattern. But there is a highly efficient system underlying how Trotros operate.

On this steamy Thursday morning I talked with Trotro drivers and passengers, trying to understand how the system works. I got more and more impressed. Sometimes my Ghanian friend had to translate to English, because the drivers only spoke their native Akan language. In the end we were directed to a “bookman”, sitting in a little cabin in a corner of the huge place. The bookman was a slim aged man with wise old eyes. Talking in Akan, he explained the system. As a “bookman” , he is a coordinator of sorts, allocating passengers to Trotros. All Trotros are unionized, which means that each Trotro driver has to choose and join a union. The spots on the “37” station, and on the other five large Trotro stations are shared and managed by the unions. This particular morning the bookman we were talking to was managing the highly lucrative routes to the Tema region, the second largest city in Ghana after Accra and its industrial capital.

Every morning, a Trotro driver checks in with his union “bookman”, paying his daily fee and registering with his license plate number. He is then entered into a list, and is allocated to one of the subdestinations within the Tema region. As there are profitable and less desirable destinations, unions alternate between different spots at the different stations. As our bookman explained to us, his union would only get the Tema spot at station “37” again eight days from now. Tomorrow, he would manage another spot with other destinations at another Trotro station.

At the Tema spot at the “37” station, a wooden sign listing the destination is put on top of the bus and behind the dashboard. At the same time, the driver or his helper are endlessly yelling the destination, because a large number of passengers are not able to read the signs. Once a bus is filled with passengers, the signs are removed and placed inside or on top of the next bus allocated to the same destination by the bookman, while the filled bus inches out of the “37” Trotro station, through a cacophony of yelling and honking bus drivers and street vendors, squeezing by other Trotros, taxis, sales booths, and passengers.

Once on the road, Trotro drivers are feared for their reckless way of driving. As time is money, they do everything they can to get to their destination as quickly as possible, to be able to pick up another load of passengers. If they have dropped off some of their passengers on the way, a naked arm waives out of the passenger side window, indicating to passengers waiting on the street that the Trotro has vacant seats. If they also waive, the Trotro pulls over, and picks them up on the road. This leads to a system – looking highly chaotic from the outside – where the Trotro drivers alternate between driving like madmen and idling along. The reason is that each driver tries to reach his destination as quickly as possible, while at the same time searching for new passengers on the road.

Overall, Trotros are an extremely efficient transportation system covering all of Ghana, entirely based on swarm-creativity and self-organization. For less than the equivalent of a dollar, destinations within Accra can be reached, while tickets to remote towns cost a few dollars. Through their unions, Trotro drivers make sure that every driver gets fair access to passengers and the most lucrative routes. The state interferes very little, its main role is to check and certify road safety of vehicles and driving capabilities of drivers. This means that with no external control, Troto drivers self-organize and collaborate in a highly cost-effective system with every driver being his own entrepreneur, controlling his own destiny

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