By Elizabeth Njambi

We need to talk about buses. Yes, buses. And inequality. The issue that nobody’s talking about.

Since the 80s, transport across the world has been privatized – fueling an inequality crisis that undermines our human rights.

Liz, Nabil and Max chat to Bassam Khawaja (Co-Director, Human Rights and Privatization Project, NYU Law School Center for Human Rights and Global Justice) and Matteo Rizzo (Senior Lecturer in Development Studies – SOAS University of London) who know lots about buses.

We ask: What do buses have to do with inequality in countries from the UK to Tanzania? What did privatization do? What is this new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system springing up in developing countries all about? What are the solutions?

Bassam and his co-authors recently made headlines about the privatization of large parts of UK’s transport system, writing a report on its failures. It shows that, despite the government promising that a privatized system would lead to “lower fares, new services, and more passengers”, while removing “any potential future liability on the taxpayer”, that has not been the case.

Matteo, who lived in Dar es Salaam for 6 years has researched new bus systems. His recent publications cover work and employment; BRT’s exclusionary nature and neoliberalism and precarious labour in relation to public transport in developing countries.

Please do share the episode on your social media.

If you’re joining us on EQUALS for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with the award-winning journalist Gary Younge on what we can learn from Martin Luther King Jr to fight inequality, to best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, Zambian music artist PilAto on the power of music, thinker Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, climate activist Hindou Ibrahim on nature, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic.

Interview with Bassam Khawaja

Why Buses?

[00:02:32] Nabil: A very warm welcome (Bassam). … You’re based in New York, you’re from the Middle East, you’re Palestinian. You work on human rights. You’ve got this kind of legal background. What on earth led you to write about buses in the UK of all places?! (All laugh)

[00:02:54] Bassam: … So, I direct a project on privatization alongside Rebecca Riddell. We used to work with Philip Alston when he was UN Rapporteur on Poverty, and we would do these country investigations where we would go in and see what governments’ policies towards poverty are. … Over and over, we’d see this issue of privatization come up, that wasn’t well-documented. There weren’t a lot of people looking into it, but it had massive impacts.

So, when the UN mandate ended, we wanted to look in more detail into privatization and see what the human rights impacts are. … And the UK was the perfect example to start with.

Buses and Inequality

[00:03:33] Max: What do buses have to do with inequality then? What’s the report showing us?

[00:03:39] Bassam: So, the report found that this is essentially a masterclass in how not to run an essential service. Buses aren’t traditionally what we view as a human rights issue. There’s no technical right to transport, although there probably should be, (because) transport is essential to almost everything we do. … If you need to get to work; if you need to get to healthcare; if you need to get to school, to education. All of that involves transport.

And if you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have a card, you can’t afford a train. Your only option is buses. And when the buses become incredibly expensive; when routes that you depend on get cut, that has a massive impact on you. People like refugees or migrants; older people; (and) people living in rural areas are some of the people that are most impacted by buses. And the service they get is often very poor in the UK as a result of privatization.

Real-Life Examples

[00:04:31] Max: … I was kind of aware of this, but it’s not something I knew the history of. And you do a lot of qualitative interviews, hearing people’s stories. … What were some of the real-life stories you heard? …

[00:04:59] Bassam: The impact is enormous. We spoke with Lee in Hartlepool who right after the 2007 financial crisis lost his job because the bus route that he depended on was cut and he was no longer able to get to work. It took him years to find another job.

We spoke with people who couldn’t get to the hospital because they don’t have a car. The hospital’s a far way away and they don’t have a bus that gets them there in any kind of reasonable way.

… Some people had to give up education… And that’s just when routes are cut. There’s a whole host of other things that happen. Imagine if you live in a place with a deregulated bus system. Suddenly, there are multiple bus companies competing with each other. They might change routes on a dime without really giving you any information about that. They will start charging you potentially more money. Bus (fares) have gone up enormously over the past 7 years. You might not know where the routes go because there’s different timetables and maps for each company. And there’s no one kind of primary resource that the local authority sets out that gives you that information.

And so, far from being a more efficient or cheaper option, it’s really been total chaos. And the only winners have been the bus companies who for years have made pretty historic profits. And they’re making these profits on the backs of people who often have very little or no other choice and are basically forced to use these systems that get worse and worse.

Has Anyone Got it Right?

[00:06:21] Max: … have you been able to look at other countries or maybe other bits of the United Kingdom that are doing things a bit better and what’s happened to improve things? I mean, is anyone doing anything right in this story?

[00:06:36] Bassam: Oh, absolutely. You have countries like Switzerland and Germany. And they have a system of every village every hour. A bus comes in every hour to every village with more than a hundred people or so. The difference is, of course, that it’s not deregulated. It’s either heavily regulated or publicly owned in the way that works for everybody.

If you look within the UK, obviously London is the big example of what regulation can deliver, but there’s also small places. Nottingham has basically a holdover system from the early days. It’s a private company, but it’s owned by Nottingham. You know, they’re able to reinvest profits into the system.

… Edinborough, Reading. These are all places where you have no technical public ownership, but they’re private companies owned by these local authorities, and they run far better than most of what we’ve seen in the privatized and deregulated space.

What would You do Differently?

[00:07:31] Max …Well, what would you say if you were in charge of the buses in Britain tomorrow? What would you do?

[00:07:46] Bassam: We’re calling for a few different things. First is, public control as the default… instead of having the current system where the default is that everything is deregulated, and bus companies do whatever they want. We want a London-style system. That means that you have an authority that even if it’s private companies who operate the buses, you have an authority that sets out, what are the prices? What are the routes? Make sure that it runs for everybody.

Greater Manchester has just taken the first step in that process. It looks like they are going to move in that direction, but it’s an incredibly difficult system. I mean, it’s very clear that the UK is not trying to incentivize this. And so there really needs to be a much easier process to go down that route.

And then ultimately, public ownership would deliver a much more efficient system at a cheaper price, with all kinds of other things that are built into it. So, you would have actual accountability. (With) the current system, if something doesn’t work for you, you’re dealing with a private company. You can’t go to the local authorities because they don’t run the buses. In fact, when we raised questions on transportation during our UN visit with Philip Alston a few years ago, they just said, well, that’s privatized. It’s not our problem.

Reclaiming Economic Rights

[00:08:45] Nabil: … When we think about human rights, … many people will switch to extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances and these kinds of issues. And yet you are talking about a different way of talking about understanding human rights. And you’re talking about economic rights. Is there a wider project here Bassam, to almost reclaim economic rights? Because it seems to me, it feels to me at times that there’s almost been like a neoliberal capture of human rights itself.

[00:09:28] Bassam: Historically, there’s obviously been a lot more attention on civil and political rights. One of the things we’re trying to do is to raise the profile of economic and social rights. Things like the right to housing (and) the right to work.

Clearly, transportation heavily affects things like your ability to get to work; your ability to go to a protest; your ability to go to a religious center. Everything that you might do involves transportation. And if you cut off transportation, you limit people’s access to their rights.

And so, we need to have a much broader conception of what these rights mean. And ultimately, it’s just not acceptable to leave something so vital to the private market.

[00:10:02] Max: I’m convinced. I remember a Norwegian ally, friend of mine, years ago. He was complaining that they privatized the cinema in Norway. (Laughs)

[00:10:10] Nabil: The cinema?

[00:10:13] Max: Yeah. And I’m thinking, just how far do I go with this public first? And then he made a really convincing case. He said basically, films that are made in Norwegian, they have to be subsidized. Otherwise, we just get American imports, you know? So, I just think there is a sense of which so much is important to be public and should be there for everyone.

But this issue of transport, you’ve inspired us to look at it in terms of developing countries too and to understand the role of the World Bank and others. So, this is a really helpful interview. Thanks Bassam. …

[00:10:51] Nabil: (Jokingly) Clearly, we need more human rights advocates in New York, who are originally from the middle east to be taking on UK privatization. Thank you, Bassam.

[00:11:02] Bassam: Thank you both for having me.

Interview with Matteo Rizzo

Bus Transport in Developing Countries

[00:11:11] Max: It’s going to be fun. … So, let’s get started. Paint us a picture of the crisis in public transport in most cities in the global south. What does it actually mean for ordinary people?

[00:11:22] Matteo: It’s a picture of huge traffic congestions; limited or no provision altogether of public transport by the public sector. And you find the vast majority of public transport is provided today by private and informal minibuses. They are quite cheap, relatively speaking. Although we should notice that the poor spend a high percentage of their budget on public transport – as high as 25 – 30% in some cities. And these are quite old vehicles, which means they are highly polluting. And they tend to speed; to be overloaded and quite unsafe as a result. What you find if you research these sectors is that these buses are operated by informal workers… operating these buses without employment contracts.

And they’re often behaving in this way… in order to make ends meet once the bus owners are asking them for significant sums of money at the end of each day. So, because public transport is so bad, you have also a race to own your private vehicle. So, you have two forces leading to this congestion. On one hand, the crisis of public transport. On the other, the proliferation of ownership of cars. And this leads to the congestion I was referring to.

How Did We Get Here?

[00:12:44] Liz: … I’m quite young, but I’ve heard stories from my mum about a time when Kenya had a public transport system operated by the Kenya Bus Service. And it sounds really great! I didn’t get to experience this kind of situation and I really wonder how did we get from there to what you just explained? What created such a mess and if any, what has been the role of the World Bank and the IMF?

[00:13:13] Matteo: … It’s true that given how young the population in Africa and Asia tends to be, many people don’t have a memory or what it looked like, and this has become the only way people can relate to when it comes to public transport.

This mess, the crisis of public transport, becomes obvious in the early 80s, but its roots are a bit earlier in the mid-70s to late 70s. … Because cities were growing very rapidly across Africa, Asia, Latin America throughout the 60s and the 70s, demand for public transport was of course going up quite rapidly. At the same time, the supply of public transport… was either constant or decreasing.

The oil crisis hit the public and developing countries’ government very hard. And what you find is that the capacity to subsidize and fund the public transport companies disappears from the mid-70s onwards.

The Role of the World Bank and IMF

Now what’s the role of the World Bank and the IMF when this crisis is manifesting itself in the early 80s? This is also the time when structural adjustment programs sponsored by the World Bank and IMF have been very aggressively promoted and rolled out in developing countries. Fiscal austerities and therefore putting constraints on public spending, was one of the main policy asks of structural adjustment policies. So, we can say that the public sector in public transport was a casualty of structural adjustment policies.

And as economic liberalization intensified over the late 80s and then 90s, you’ll find that there is always also an increasing deregulation of the activities of the private sector. So, the fare levels, for instance, are now left to supply and demand in the market, rather than regulated by a public sector authority. So, the World Bank and IMF did not cause this crisis in the first place, but when the early 80s come, they have a big role in forcing the private sector to be the main provider of public transport in cities of the Global South.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

[00:15:40] Liz: We’re seeing that the World Bank is pushing for a kind of solution with this new BRT systems, that is the bus rapid transit. What is this? And on what scale is it happening especially in developing countries?

[00:15:54] Matteo: So, let’s start with the scale. And the first thing to say is that it is the mode of public transport growing most rapidly in the world.

As to what is a BRT system, the slogan of BRT is ‘Think Rail, See Bus’. Advocates of BRT claim that this is about combining the flexibility of bus transit, with the speed, reliability, and capacity of underground systems. And the great appeal is that they claim that this happens at a fraction of the cost.

So, how do they work in practice? You have a BRT system operating on dedicated bus lanes. So exclusive bus lanes for these buses while passengers pay their fares before boarding. The promise is that fares on BRT systems are comparable to the minibuses that BRT tend to replace. Although this is often not the case. And the other thing important to say here is that BRT systems are funded through World Bank and other development banks loans. And they’re operated as public private partnerships that is dictated as one of the conditionalities of the lending. So, in summary, the BRT systems are sold as a “win-win” solution to public transport problem…

[00:17:30] Max: I’m no expert on public transport, but I certainly lived in Nairobi and saw the absolute insanity and the danger that poor people have to face every day with these minibuses. And this bus thing sounds really good, Matteo! I mean, I hate to say it, but it sounds like the World Bank is doing something good for once. But you’ve been really critical of it. Could you maybe go a bit more into why you think it’s not really the great solution that it sounds like it is?

[00:17:55] Matteo: Yeah, of course. You’re right. I’m extremely critical of BRT systems. I suppose the main issue is that this rosy picture, this “win-win” scenario that is described by its advocates, is a big lie really.

Let’s start from fare levels. They are higher than pre-existing minibuses tend to charge, and this of course has very dire implications on the capacity of the poor to access these revamped public transport systems.

Second, the BRT systems promise to be financially self-sufficient once the implementation starts, … But again, once implementation starts, you find the BRT systems require public subsidies, and that is problematic because the minibuses that they replace were operating without benefits.

Also, we should point out their employment implications… When you move from minibuses which are typically 20 or 30 sitters, to buses that are 150 sitters, you are killing on average 5-6 jobs out of 7 in the public transport.

Last but not least, the BRT systems are operated through loans. And as a result of that, the public sector undertakes huge debts to repay these loans.

What would You do Differently?

[00:19:27] Liz: If today you are put in charge of the World Bank …, what would you be proposing instead to end this crisis?

[00:19:39] Matteo: The first thing I would say is, let’s not start by assuming that BRT is the solution to public transport problems. Let’s have a genuinely white canvas and let’s explore the costs and opportunities of a wide range of interventions. …

Second, I think I would be very upfront that when you intervene in public transport, you have two conflated development problems. One is, how do you move people around in a city? What is the most efficient way in terms of transport? (And two,) there is, an issue of employment. What are the trade-offs between different types of public transport between increasing the size of buses and the speed of travel and destroying jobs? Can we help city authorities to make an informed decision about these trade-offs rather than bulldozing going forward, BRT as this “win-win” solution, when we clearly know that this is not a “win-win” solution?

[00:21:30] Max: So, ideally you could have them publicly owned. You could have, I don’t know, maybe two classes on the bus. Very, very cheap tickets for the poorest. There are things they could at least think about that would improve things. But ideally, you don’t want cities to go down this route in the first place if they possibly can do something different. I think that’s very clear.

[00:21:49] Matteo: Another thing to say, let’s think about BRT systems in conjunction with the private car use that is taking place in parallel, right? Because we have these two lanes where BRT buses are operating and alongside that, the two lanes where private cars are circulating. What is striking is that there is no attempt to decrease the use of these private cars and they are clearly the main cause of congestion, rather than the minibuses themselves.

[00:22:20] Max: Playing Devil’s advocate there Matteo, isn’t it better for the BRT system to be reassuringly expensive and amenable to the middle-class then, if your objective is to get rid of the 4x4s? As you say, the mini buses are not the main cause of congestion. …

[00:22:52] Liz: And can I add on to that. Obviously, the current transport system still has its flaws. How then are we working on the flaws of the current minibus system?

[00:23:03] Matteo: Well, the emphasis on balancing that you were making is really the key issue here. And I can tell you the experience I had when I first saw BRT operating in Dar es Salaam and how undesirable the balance that was reached was, after the rolling out of BRT.

Because the fare levels were too high, the government had no courage to phase out the minibuses from the routes operating in parallel to BRT systems. And this goes against the plan of BRT. And it means that a scarce resource – taxpayer money – is being used to revamp public transport in a way that excludes the poor. …

What you’re describing as solutions are much more desirable. You could try to subsidize fare levels, so make it inclusive to the poor. You could try to curb down the inefficient use of 4x4s. You could try to hit all these things, but they require strong political will and they might be met with very strong resistance. It is very messy politics we are talking about and they require some very courageous, brave choices on behalf of the government.


[00:24:24] Liz: … When you look at your research, what can you point to as something that gives you hope?

[00:24:36] Matteo: So, first of all, I strongly believe in the role of research in exploding these tensions. And that’s what motivates me personally, to try to contribute in the small way I can, to emphasize the problems associated with BRT.

I think what gives me hope is that in a sense, the very aggressive promotion of BRT is bringing to the fore some very significant contradictions that are associated with the implementation of BRT. And this might trigger a debate that you can see sometimes emerging in Tanzania, which is the context I know better.

These are the kinds of debates that are becoming more dynamic, more vibrant. This gives me some hope, but in the context that is, let’s face it, pretty grim.

[00:25:26] Max: I think that’s a great point. I think it captures in all of this, my sense as well, which is, yes, what’s being promoted is very bad, but at least there is a debate now about what government needs to do to intervene in public transport in these countries, rather than the kind of accepting the insane deregulated anarchy as just the only way forward. So, I think, yeah, hopefully with this podcast, we can keep pushing that debate and it’s been amazing to talk to you. Thank you very much.

[00:25:52] Matteo: And thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

[00:25:55] Liz: Thank you for joining us.


Wow, Max, who knew buses are so interesting?

[00:26:06] Max: Yeah, I know, buses! And also, so just fundamental to people’s human rights, you know? I’ve never thought about it like that.

[00:26:14] Liz: I really, really loved that angle. And the whole time I just kept thinking about my mum.

[00:26:19] Max: Yeah, your mom. She uses public transport a lot, doesn’t she, in Nairobi?

[00:26:23] Liz: Yeah. … we call them matatus here, which is basically the minibuses we’ve been talking about. And it takes her about 4 to 5 hours a day in transit. Like 2 hours in the morning, 2 or more hours in the evening. So, she has to leave very very early, if she wants to avoid traffic.

[00:26:45] Max: Just so people can see, this is literally just across Nairobi, isn’t it? From one side to the other.

[00:26:50] Liz: Yes. You know, I asked her and we were trying to do the math, just trying to see how much of her salary goes into transport. And it was about 35% and sometimes it goes over. …

And on top of that, her employer has this clock-in system. Every time you get to work, you have to clock in that ‘I got in at this particular time’. They have to get in by 8AM. If you’re any later than 8:15 AM, then you lose that hour and any hour after that until the time that it shows you got into work.

So not only is she losing time, a lot of her salary is going into transport, but if she’s late despite waking up early and doing everything she needed to do, she’s also going to lose out on her wages. Like that’s almost every other Kenyan’s reality. Transport is going to cost you massively!

[00:27:55] Max: It’s huge. And Bassam, in his interview was really interesting. How this kind of anarchy of privatization, of liberalization is also hurting people in the UK. The elderly, the poor unable to get to hospital appointments, feeling isolated. … still paying very high prices on very low income. So a real connection between the kind of reality in developing countries and these kind of privatized systems in the North as well.

[00:28:27] Liz: It was very interesting to know that people are also suffering in these developed countries. We’ve seen this new bus systems. These BRTs that are being suggested as a solution. Matteo doesn’t agree at all that they are a solution, but Max, I sensed that you don’t quite agree with Matteo. So, could you share a bit more your thoughts on that?

[00:28:48] Max: I mean, I wouldn’t say I disagree with him. I just think they could be made to be a lot better. …

Where I agree with him is, you know, having them run by private foreign companies, charging much, much higher prices. This is classic World Bank. A really good idea, which is a public bus system, is undermined by their kind of neoliberal model of doing things, which is always contracting out, using these private companies. And loving these kind of big, big infrastructure projects. So, I do get his point and I do agree that other cities that haven’t done this should be thinking about other ways of doing it.

But I also think for those cities that have this bus transit system, there should be a big fight to make them free for the poor. To subsidize them, so people like your mom get to use them.

[00:29:54] Liz: And he mentioned something about jobs as well. The fact that there’s tens of thousands of jobs being lost. … So how do we combine this system which sounds really great, but also finding alternative ways to ensure that people still find employment.

[00:30:18] Max: It’s like, what are the objectives of public policy?

And one of them is to reduce the inequalities in terms of access to transport. But if you do that in a way that destroys tens of thousands of jobs for unskilled young men, … to think of ways of providing public transport in ways that also don’t massively reduce the numbers of jobs, this particularly overnight. Yeah, certainly a lot to think about.

[00:30:44] Liz: Yeah. Max. I mean, I’m really glad we did this episode. I definitely will be reading a lot more about it after this, and I hope you guys have enjoyed it as much as we have. As usual, please remember to share the podcast with your friends and family and give us a rating on Apple Podcasts.

[00:31:01] Max: Uh, yes. And particularly this episode. Give it a really high rating because obviously it’s Elizabeth’s first episode and I think we can all agree. She was brilliant and put me to shame. So, uh, looking forward to many more in the future. So, thanks everyone.

[00:31:16] Liz: Thanks Max. Thanks everyone.

[00:31:17] Max: Talk to you all Next time.

[00:31:29] Liz: Bye

Elizabeth Njambi is the Producer of the EQUALS Podcast. She also manages the EQUALS Blog. Elizabeth is a Kenyan Advocate passionate about access to justice. She is the Founder and CEO of Wakili.sha Initiative and Co-host of the Wakili.sha Podcast.

Image Credits

  1. Featured Image: “TransMilenio buses near the Simon Bolivar station” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  2. Red bus. “Reading Buses new ADL Enviro400 MMC” by wirewiper is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  3. Bus Rapid Transit Station. Source: