In spite of all the harrowing, death-defying experiences I’ve had on Ghanaian roads, I have to say that Ghana definitely has the US beat on one thing: mass transit.
I’ve often wished that is was easier to get between major US cities. If you’re looking to get to say, Portland from Seattle, you have a few not great options. You can own a car and spend a small fortune on gas. You can borrow a car or use a car-sharing program and spend a small fortune on gas. You can hitchhike and risk getting picked up by creepers and/or Ted Bundy’s reincarnation. You can pay $50 or so and take a train or a Greyhound and get there in 5 hours instead of the 3 it would take to drive. You can pay an obscene amount of money to fly.
All of these options have two things in common. One, they’re very inefficient. The time constraints imposed by buses, trains and other large, publicly subsidized forms of transportation mean that most people who have the means to drive will do so. So we end up with a lot of cars carrying one or two people making these drives every day. Secondly, if you don’t have money, you’re out of luck.
Ghana has developed an awesome, if slightly terrifying way around this problem. Stand by the side of any paved road for five minutes, and at least three vans will drive by blaring horns and shouting at you to figure out if you need a ride. These vans are called “tro-tros”, and they’re extremely efficient solution to the mass transportation problem.
Tro-tros operate out of stations. Every city has at least one: a place with vans and shared taxis packed together like sardines, with women balancing snacks in bowls on their heads weaving in and out trying to sell passengers something for the road. Earlier this week, I took a short trip to Cape Coast, another city about four hours away. All I had to do was show up at the station and within seconds, someone was able to point me towards the van heading to Cape Coast. I paid 12 cedis ($8) for my ticket, got on the van, waited for it to fill up (about half an hour), and we were off. Four hours later, I was in Cape Coast.
In contrast to American mass transit, tro-tros are extremely efficient. First of all, they’re packed full at all times—empty seats are lost profit, so drivers wait until every seat is taken. This minimizes fuel burned per person, making them much more environmentally friendly than your average American SUV carrying two people. Tro-tros also pick people up and drop them off along roads between major cities, making them very convenient regardless of where you’re headed. And while you do have to wait for the tro-tro to fill up at the station, they’re still much more time efficient than Amtrak, Greyhounds or planes, when you factor in the time it takes to get to the station, clear security, buy a ticket in advance and all the rest. Plus, they’re dirt cheap. Obviously, that’s partly a function of the fact that everything in Ghana is cheap compared to the US. But I have a hard time imagining how filling a van full of Seattleites and driving them to Portland could cost more than a train ticket already does.
I know there are a bunch of cultural reasons why Americans wouldn’t be into this model. It requires you to ride shoulder to shoulder with strangers, many of whom are eating fragrant foods or holding babies on their lap. Car-sharing means trusting people you don’t really know, both to drive safely and to not kidnap and kill you. People use long drives to listen to music or chat with friends, both of which are made difficult by the loud gospel music that tro-tro drivers seem to favor.
Americans are definitely willing to share rides when the pool of potential rides is trusted. For example, Whitman has a “rides” listserv, where people can post if they’re driving somewhere nearby (usually Seattle or Portland from Walla Walla) or need a ride. Largely because of this, it’s extremely rare for a car to go from Walla Walla to a major city without a full load of either people or their stuff. But we don’t like extending this model to the wider world. There have definitely been some efforts to change this, and some cities have an emerging carpool-with-strangers culture, but nothing I’ve seen or read about in the US even comes close to Ghana’s tro-tro and shared taxi system.
Just one more thing to add to my hippie utopia wish list…