Get on Board: Learning from Informal Transportation in the Global South

Informal transportation is always on the move. Photo by Yuya Uzu on Unsplash

Informal Transportation: an asset or a problem?

For many, informal transportation is a normal part of everyday life. It is highly visible on the streets of cities across the Global South but remains much less visible in mainstream mobility and transportation practice, investment and policy.

Can we transform the informal transportation sector starting with the workers themselves? Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash.

Can we find an opportunity to focus on the worker, rather than the service?

The predominant assumption is that informal transport should be formalized. We are looking at the risks and incentives of that assumption. Our work thus far suggests that there is an opportunity to investigate how outcomes might change if we focused on formalizing the drivers and their vehicles, instead of formalizing the services. One expert we spoke with, Aishwarya Raman, from the Ola Mobility Institute argues that current definitions of “formal” and “informal” uselessly strive to regulate services, rather than centering on the rights and protections of the workers themselves. She points to India’s new labor codes of 2019–2020, which enshrined the legal status of gig workers and extended social security benefits such as maternity leave, disability insurance, gratuity and health insurance regardless of employer. While these reforms still await implementation, she believes they hold the potential to transform labor’s relationship with the government and platforms alike.

How can we shift the focus to integration rather than formalization?

As technological capabilities begin to outstrip those of formal public transportation when it comes to booking and payment, the question is how and where to integrate the two. In India, in 2020, for example, Gojek launched GoTransit for seamless multimodal trip planning across its own services and the Jakarta MRT. Will super apps fold formal transportation into their platforms? If so, who will determine public policy for these hybrid entities and how will they make these choices?

Digitalization is transforming the sector. Photo by Edi Kurniawan on Unsplash.

Is digitalization already introducing a degree of formality to informal transport?

The speed and impacts of digitalization over the last two to five years cannot be overstated. In fact, digitalization has introduced a degree of formality to informal transport. By requiring drivers to submit credentials, wear uniforms and submit to GPS-based tracking and surveillance, platforms such as Gojek, Grab, and Ola, for example, have clearly instituted some formalization of the sector, but to what extent is up for debate. Policymakers will need to determine whether and how to ensure interoperability across markets and between players, or even the development of digital public infrastructure and interfaces.

Watch this space.

In the next phase, the UNDP Accelerator Labs will continue to explore these questions in informal transportation. So far, we are working with UNDP Accelerator Labs in Bolivia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Kenya, North Macedonia, Togo, and Zimbabwe.

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UNDP Accelerator Labs

UNDP Accelerator Labs

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/