Reimagining Technology and Mobility

On March 9, 2016, Accra [Dot] Alt Radio posted a photo on Instagram, announcing that “Accra has Tuk Tuk cabs now and they’re pretty cheap.  They get through the traffic really fast too.”


Ghana is not the only place where “tuk tuks” have shown up in the last several years.  The motorized rickshaws, most commonly associated with Southeast Asia, have spread throughout the Indian Ocean world.  In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, these vehicles–known as bajaji after Bajaj Auto Manufacturers–represented a cheaper and more efficient form of transportation, which was able to easily navigate the frequently congested traffic of the East African capital.  You find bajaji in areas where taxis do not frequent, and they are most often used for short-distance trips.

In Tanzania, the omnipresence of bajaji highlight Dar es Salaam‘s connection to the culture and economy of the Indian Ocean world.  But tuk tuks are also increasingly found in the Western world, where they represent alternative imaginations of mobile technology, infrastructure, and practice.  In Liverpool City, tuk tuks are used as tourism/sight-seeing vehicles, enabling visitors to see the city while traveling “in style.”  On Friday nights, you can sing karaoke in a tuk tuk.  You can hire a white tuk tuk for weddings or use a tuk tuk for airport transfers.

The related pedi-cabs are found in cities throughout the US and Western Europe.  In Detroit, pedi-cabs or rickshaws are used for weddings, urban advertisement, and tourism, but they are also connected to an emerging culture of bicycling or “pedal-powered culture” that speaks to concerns about global warming and the long-lasting effects of global warming in the Motor City, as well as the emergence of an economy of what many people describe as a form of hipster entrepreneurialism.  In other words, in cities like Detroit and Denver, rickshaws, which have long been associated with the poverty of the developing world, are increasingly being redeployed as symbols of coolness and urbanity.

While pedi-cabs owners in Detroit seem not to address the lingering discomfort about unequal access to transport resources and infrastructure and the images and structures of white privilege that are associated with and inscribed through the rickshaw, the motorized tuk tuk in Ghana (as in Dar es Salaam) seems to fit more seamlessly into the culture of motorized transport and automobility in the capital city.  As Accra [dot] alt suggests, these new introductions are cheaper and more efficient versions of the ubiquitous dropping taxi, which promises to make transport more affordable for the city’s highly mobile residents.

These alternative visions of mobility are not new in Ghana.  In the colonial period, British officials suggested constructing a subway in Accra and imported limited numbers of rickshaws on a trial basis before abandoning the project due to lack of interest and finances.  In the context of British colonial rule, those alternative visions more often arrived in the form of foreign borrowings, either from the metropole itself in the case of the subway or from other imperial territories like India.  The municipal bus system itself was a sort of foreign borrowing–an infrastructural and technological symbol of an alternative vision of the city’s future, modeled off of the particular forms of regulation and organization that had structured British experiences of mobility.  The reasons behind the failures of these projects varied but often highlighted the unwillingness of British officials to consider fully the finances and the cost of infrastructure, the culture associated with movement, or the networks of mobility that technology makes possible.

Contemporary foreign impositions have, in many cases, suffered the same fate.  Bus Rapid Transit has been slow to take off and has not been widely embraced by the city’s population of passengers or drivers.  Likewise, Uber and other kinds of alternative taxi services have failed in West Africa and throughout the continent.  Some grassroots efforts, however, have begun to combine digital technologies and local transport networks to produce innovative new ways of imagining the country’s transport sector.  Organizations like Mo’Go Ghana or Trotro Diaries build on existing cultures of ride-sharing to improve passenger experiences and increase efficiency within the transport system. As NextCity author M. Sophia Newman mused while riding a trotro in Accra in January 2015, “Could the next step forward be shared vehicles like Ghana’s tro-tros? Would the approach address Uber’s shortcomings?” As these new systems come online, we will have to see.  In the meantime, urban planning students at Wayne State have suggested, “Detroit needs trotros!”  These kinds of conversations point to interesting and important pathways for collaboration and discussion that transcend–and totally upend–traditional narratives about African technology and infrastructure.


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