Boda Bodas for the US?
By Steven Polunsky
The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Just Transport series. Transport is fundamental to our existence – including access to key sources of livelihood, ranging from work to healthcare to educational institutions to childcare to stores. Yet, the right to accessible, safe and affordable transport – as a public good – is continuously denied on the basis of ability, race, gender, sexuality and class. With this in mind, authors have highlighted initiatives, strategies or actions that aim to secure more just forms of transit.
Three persons on boda-boda. Uganda, somewhere on A109 Road, between Jinja and Malaba. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Motorcycle taxis have been more of a joke than a reality in the US – played for laughs in the HBO show Succession and destined for a short life like the MotoLimos company, which in 2011 offered rides on top-of-the-line Honda Goldwings with Bluetooth helmets, airbag equipped vests, and even riding clothes for up to $90 an hour plus membership fees in San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and New York. Legend has it that the company was banking on lane filtering (moving between lanes of vehicles, closely related to and usually used interchangeably with lane splitting) but doing that created customer anxiety, so they added 3-wheeled Can Am Spyders, which became stuck in traffic like everyone else.
2011 is also the year World Moto announced the Taxi-Meter, heralded as "the world's first motorcycle taxi meter…", "one of the most significant innovations of this decade…" and "The First Real Taxi Meter Innovation in 100 Years...a $3 billion dollar idea." Like MotoLimos, World Moto is no longer in business.
Yet, other parts of the world are seeing successful uses of motorcycles in passenger and freight movement through urban and even rural areas. A good example is the boda bodas of Africa. The name possibly signifies the ability to serve border-to-border, or more likely is the sound made by the gasoline powered engines most use. The same concept is known by different names around the world, but boda boda is the term of choice in several African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda. Auto passengers in congested urban centers like Mombasa and Nairobi have been said to leave their vehicles and catch a boda boda for time-sensitive trips. Uganda’s capital Kampala alone may have as many as 200,000 boda bodas. Some can carry two or even three passengers.
Barriers to entry are few, as evidenced by the self-described “housewife with two children” Indonesian motorcycle taxi driver and data from Vietnam that shows motorcycle taxi driving is a full-time job for unskilled and low-income populations, although heavily skewing to males from 40-60 years old. Equipment is more readily available in Africa since limits on importing motorcycles were eased. Capital costs are low, enabling a wide range of business models, from individuals operating as ride-hail taxis to Mobility-as-a-Service implementations (typically, technology-enabled subscription services that integrate disparate travel modes) including fleets that are leased for a daily fee and app-based dispatch (some are available through Uber and other apps).
In comparison to micromobility such as bicycles and scooters, boda bodas use only the street so they do not take up space on sidewalks and, at the owner’s discretion, can be cash-based, app-based, or use some combination of these methods. In some areas, collectives have sprung up to support training and safety standards and provide financing and loans through savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs). Income can be augmented through sales of small, portable items like condoms.
Furthermore, there is now a movement to electrify these vehicles. A company named Ampersand is operating a small fleet in Rwanda. Other companies entering the field are ARC Ride, Bodawerk, Ecobodaa, Safi, and Zembo. Much as with autos, adoption of electric motorcycles depends on factors such as price, range, and charge time.
Could this new movement find its way to the United States? While Thailand became the world’s first country to regulate motorcycle taxis in 2005, the United States has no similarly specific requirements, so the answer depends on how well existing systems, laws, and regulations can adapt to the paradigm, rather than the other way around. Issues include a patchwork of local business regulations – licenses, permits, fees, and fare regulations as well as insurance requirements – that affect the business entity, the equipment, and the drivers. How will local regulators see these businesses – as taxis, transportation network corporations, or like restaurant delivery services that use scooters? Will the drivers be seen as owners, employees, or contractors? Would some level of training be required to carry passengers for hire? Would speed or engine size be regulated? Such a regulated system may be attractive to transportation officials who could require sensors that communicate with infrastructure to transmit real-time traffic related data; on the other hand, at least one country’s tracker implementation is being interpreted as unwanted surveillance.
The concept presents an opportunity for addressing safety concerns by using data-driven research to evaluate safety needs. Boda bodas in the US would have a significant advantage if more states legalize lane filtering, as California and Utah have done and Montana recently authorized under certain circumstances. Speed limitations, safety gear requirements, and operational considerations could be tailored to localized injury data in geographically defined, speed limited, and congested areas.
Such services are more likely to become attractive in urban areas where parking spaces for new structures are limited or subject to fees. Moreso as the vehicles become electrified and linkages are made to transit agencies, local nonprofits, and businesses (one popular African restaurant chain has its own branded boda boda service for its customers). One unknown is how existing ride-hailing companies would react. Would they enter the field and impose an American-style gig economy, and under those circumstances could African-style models meet or out-compete?
There are downsides to this line of work. Motorcycle drivers would be subjected to urban street noise levels and exhaust, both while driving and waiting/acquiring new customers. Motorcycles are dangerous -- pre-Covid data tells us that motorcyclists are about 29 times more likely than passenger vehicle occupants to die in a motor vehicle crash and 4 times more likely to be injured. Driving a motorcycle with a passenger or passengers is difficult and may be made more so if the passenger is unfamiliar with motorcycle physics.
About one in four adults in the US report having a disability, and the most prevalent type of impairment is mobility. Motorcycles can be designed or modified for drivers with disabilities using devices like dual kickstands, foot controls, and stabilizer bars. Motorcyclists with disabilities are generally entitled to special license plates or placards in the same way as car users, enabling the use of marked parking spots and sometimes free metered spaces. The technology that enables passengers with disabilities to access taxi or ride-hailing should be serviceable for motorcycles as well. There does not seem to be much in the way of research regarding motorcycle use by passengers with disabilities, although there is literature that suggests guidance on creating infrastructure that accommodates people with disabilities is scarce.
While not a solution to every transportation problem, motorcycle taxis could be an affordable and efficient augmentation to America’s mobility network. Some laws and regulatory structures may need adjustment to maximize the benefit. Low cost of entry would be attractive for potential drivers but safety and health concerns become prominent.
Steven Polunsky is the Director of the Transportation Policy Research Center within the Alabama Transportation Institute at the University of Alabama, where he leads a multidisciplinary team of researchers providing transportation and mobility information to policymakers and the public. Polunsky serves on the ENO Center for Transportation’s Board of Advisors and the Transportation Research Board’s committees on Emerging Technology Law and Critical Transportation Infrastructure Protection. He serves on the University of Alabama’s Council on Community-Based Partnerships and is past Chair of the Campus Security and Safety Committee. He previously was a research scientist with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute where he provided policy implementation support for topics of legislative interest and served as agency liaison for Hurricane Harvey. As a state legislative staffer he directed committees overseeing transportation, homeland security, and commerce where he produced policy studies, evaluated and handled legislation, and managed operations and staff. An international speaker on government transparency, he led an award-winning technology initiative that saved thousands of taxpayer dollars, debuted live spatial data in a legislative hearing, and produced the first state legislative committee mobile app, leading to his designation as Open Government Superhero by the Dallas Morning News.