François Séguin in one of our current CIDA IYIP interns based in Dakar, Senegal. His work focuses on geographic information systems.
In Dakar, owning a car is a privilege reserved only for the wealthiest. A taxi ride is also too pricy for many Senegalese families so almost everybody uses public transit for his or her daily commute. This situation may explain why there is a wide variety of transit options.
First, the official and most conventional ones: the “Dakar Dem Dikk” (DDD), literally “round-trip” in wolof, and the “Tata”. DDD runs approximately 400 large buses all over the city on fixed routes with varying fares depending on the distance. They are the only buses allowed in central Dakar and can be easily recognized by their blue and yellow livery and uniquely loud screeching brakes. Their smaller brothers, the “Tata,” function in more or less the same way. Named after the Indian company Tata Motors that used to manufacture them, they kept their name even though nowadays the Chinese company King Long produces the “Tata”. I must admit I am a big fan of the name.
Together DDD and “Tata” cannot satisfy the demand of a city the size of Dakar. Both systems are beyond overcrowded almost all day long. This is where privately owned alternatives come in handy. Private but not quite informal; a permit is mandatory to operate them, with frequent police checks. The most famous and oldest of them are the colourful “cars rapides”. But don’t be fooled by their name, they are everything but fast; high velocity is definitely not their strength and breakdowns are the norm. Sometimes passengers have to push the vehicle to help the driver to start the engine. Nonetheless, they provide an inexpensive and frequent service to neighbourhoods where the public buses are less reliable. On top of that, they make excellent pictures for post cards and serve as a symbol for the city.
Along with the “cars rapides”, the “Ndiaga Ndiaye”, named after their “inventor” M. Ndiaga Ndiaye, are large white vans with back door entry for passengers. The main advantage is that they ensure a seated place for everyone, if being in close proximity to the other passengers is not an issue. The controller hanging out at the back of the van yells destinations to prospective passengers. It is not always easy to distinguish the called destinations. It is recommended to confirm the route with the controller to avoid surprises. The payment system is quite interesting. Once full, the controller cannot move around to collect fares. He stays at the back (still partially outside) and calls up rows. When it is your row’s turn to pay, you give your money to the passenger behind you who passes it along to the next passenger all the way to the back. But ‘what if I don’t have the exact change?’ a first time user might think. No worries, it will come back the same way. Once you have arrived at your destination, just knock a few times with a coin on the metal frame of the van to tell the driver to stop. It works almost every time.
The last type of public transit is apparently the most recent: the “clondos”. Derived from the French word “clandestin”, “clondos” are an example of an informal mean of transportation. There operate completely outside legal boundaries. They are an initiative from unemployed individuals and run on certain streets where people travel short distances, but don’t want to pay for taxi. It is not uncommon to ride in a “clondo” and be stopped by the police to give the driver a fine. Questionable breaks and engines, difficulty seeing through the windshield, worn out tires and doors that swing open while en route are all characteristics that help distinguish them from other cars. However, they are more comfortable than the buses and cheaper than taxis for short trips. Some even offer the passengers a ‘window’ under the seat where you can glance at the road if you’re bored by the side view!
Dakar is a congested city with overused infrastructure. But with all the choices of means of transportation it is surprisingly easy and efficient to travel around for a cheap fare without a personal car. Many planners in Europe or North America would see this a synonym of quality of life, but in Dakar the low car ownership is seen as a lack of development. This goes to show the world is an amazingly strange place.