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Tanzania's Biggest City Finds Success With Region's First Bus Rapid Transit System


A lot of cities in East Africa have a big problem - traffic. Populations are booming, the use of cars is increasing, but few countries have kept up. Tanzania's biggest city is an exception. It has found success with the region's first bus rapid transit. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Shaibu Hussein Cheche is standing on one of the platforms of Dar es Salaam's new bus rapid transit stations. He's leaning against a rail as passengers hurry to catch a bus.


PERALTA: This is a different Dar es Salaam than even two years ago. Cheche says before the bus rapid transit, he had to wake up hours before the sun came up, board a crowded minibus, which crawled its way downtown.

SHAIBU HUSSEIN CHECHE: Even four hours, it was something normal. But right now, it could take 40 minutes, 45 minutes.

PERALTA: It means that Cheche has gotten hours of his life back.

CHECHE: It's just like you get time to rest and think much what to do next.

PERALTA: Saleen Mwaemu, another passenger, says she didn't used to take public transportation, and now she does. It's safe. It's clean. It's 40 cents a ride. And she's even happy it's not light rail.

SALEEN MWAEMU: I prefer bus. I'm so scared of electricity trains, so I prefer buses.

PERALTA: In a lot of ways, this system in Tanzania with its elevated platforms and dedicated traffic lanes has become the envy of East Africa. The day I interview the CEO, he is hosting a delegation from neighboring countries, and they pepper him with questions about how they've made it work.

RONALD WAKATERE: The success is the big transformation we've brought to Dar es Salaam.

PERALTA: Ronald Wakatere says when they started looking at transit solutions in the year 2000, they looked at subways, and they looked at light rail. Ultimately, a bus rapid transit system made more sense, in large part because it was an infrastructure project that Tanzania could afford. The whole project, financed in large part by the World Bank, cost $450 million.

WAKATERE: We saw that it's also - it has an inclusive element in it.

PERALTA: One of the hurdles to building public transport systems in East Africa is the political power wielded by the operators of small, privately owned buses. With this BRT system, the so-called daladala drivers were brought into the fold.

WAKATERE: I think we had a condition that at least 75 percent of the drivers should be those who are the daladala drivers.

PERALTA: Wakatere says they've had many challenges. They've had to train drivers to leave on time, for example, and they've had to train motorists to keep off dedicated lanes. Maja Mbuya, a public transit advocates, says there are still a lot of problems with the system. As ridership has gone up, reliability has gone down, but as he stands on a rooftop patio looking down at one of the dedicated bus lanes, he says the system is also responsible for a change in the way Tanzanians think about public transport.

MAJA MBUYA: First of all, they are clean, and second, those buses, as you can see, they look like somewhere in Europe or somewhere in the western country. So people say, oh, I can take that. You know, I've seen people on Sunday, they take their family, not just because they don't have cars, just because they want to get that experience.

PERALTA: For now, the system has two lines. It's expected to grow to 11 lines by the early 2020s. Mbuya says that's essential because Dar es Salaam is still losing $2 million a day because of time lost in traffic. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Dar es Salaam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.