Asia and the Pacific is a region where diverse modes of transport play special roles in facilitating mobility. Mass transit modes (trains, trams, Bus Rapid Transit and ordinary buses) coexist with private modes (cars, motorcycles, bicycles and e-bikes) and paratransit vehicles. The term “paratransit” is used to describe the many multi-passenger small vans, mini-buses, angkots, tuk-tuks, jeepneys, samlors, passenger motorcycles and non-motorized rickshaws which characterize many Asian and Pacific cities. Paratransit is often used interchangeably with informal transport, but some modes of paratransit are regulated and operate by license.
For example, there are about 75,000 franchised jeepneys in Manila; each of which can carry up to twenty passengers. Jeepneys follow fixed routes and must be licensed. The government shut down public utility vehicles including jeepneys with various degrees of restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though public utility vehicles including jeepneys comprise the most important mode of transport, they need to receive special permit for service resumption as of late 2021. In Jakarta, there are about 45,000 privately owned angkots (minivans with a capacity for 12 to 15 seated passengers). For many passengers, angkots are the only affordable transport option. Meanwhile, demand-driven informal minibus operators (marshrutka) service some Central Asian cities. In Bangkok, motorcycle-taxis and samlors are very popular. They provide feeder services to and from inner city roads to metro and BTS (train) stations.
In many cases, paratransit vehicles offer efficient services (sometimes door-to-door) between points that are not served or are inefficiently served by public transit. Although there is a lack of reliable data on paratransit vehicles, the recent ESCAP SUTI mobility assessment reports estimated that the mode share of paratransit in commuting trips is 58 per cent in Dhaka, 50 per cent in Jakarta, 40 per cent in Kuala Lumpur, 38 per cent in Manila and 32 per cent in Surat, India. While paratransit services do cause traffic congestion and contribute to environmental problems, they also serve as a personalized and flexible public transport mode and are highly responsive to passenger demand, especially in developing Asian countries and cities. They provide accessibility to workers and wage earners on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. These services can navigate narrow alleys and dead-end streets, which are impenetrable by formal transport. They also offer a convenient transport option for women, children and the elderly, and address the first leg and last leg of urban journeys, which is key to the success of mass transit. Finally, paratransit provides a significant source of employment for the poor. It has been estimated that there are 10 million rickshaw drivers in India, while Bangladesh has about 2 million, 280,000-400,000 of whom operate in Dhaka.
Although most authorities tend to blame paratransit operators for traffic and safety issues, in recent years, interest has grown in the sustainability of paratransit, its integration with public transport and its harmonization with the overall public transport system. Ride-hailing motorcycle taxi services are already increasing in popularity, especially with the availability of cell-phone apps to access their service.
A female operator of electric Safe Tempo in Kathmandu (Photo credit: Aeloi Technologies)
The paratransit fleet is also gradually electrifying – although this requires the construction of supporting infrastructure (such as charging facilities), provision of maintenance services and financing schemes to cover the initial costs of e-vehicles. In Nepal, many forms of electric three-wheelers operate. The most popular is the electric Safa (clean) tempo, which has operated in Kathmandu valley since 1993 and is popular among female operators. In the Philippines, e-trikes are being promoted in some cities. Currently, more than 80 electric jeepneys and minibuses are in operation in Metro Manila and modernized solar-electric jeepneys are operating in the northern part of Tacloban City as part of the public utility vehicle modernization program.
City and national governments should consider ways to better integrate paratransit modes. Policy support is needed for the informal transport sector, which provides last and first mile connectivity and offers low-cost mobility options. With minimal investments, the opportunities to make informal passenger transport more sustainable, safe and inclusive are considerable.
Governments recently committed to enhancing the inclusiveness of transport systems during the fourth Ministerial Conference on Transport held in December 2021, where they adopted the Ministerial Declaration on Sustainable Transport Development and the next Regional Action Programme on Sustainable Transport Development in Asia and the Pacific (2022-2026). To implement these commitments, policy-makers and practitioners may wish to refer to the ESCAP study on Enhancing Sustainability and Inclusiveness of Urban Passenger Transport in Asian Cities, where examples from the region are described. The 2021 Review of Developments in Transport in Asia and the Pacific also offers policy options for making passenger transport more sustainable, inclusive and resilient.