August 8, 2005
In the back of a 'blue donkey' line-cab - My favourite place in Ethiopia #3
They are not particularly comfortable. The typical seating arrangement is 12 people crammed into a space a bit larger than the back of an average Land Rover – six squeezed in on a barely-padded bench on either side with knees almost touching in the middle. When you get out, you have to bend over to half your height and apologise along the way to everyone you accidentally elbow in the face (at least that is how I do it).
They are also not particularly safe. I have often wondered what would happen if one of these packed vehicles took a corner at more than 20 miles an hour. You don't want to think what would happen if they met an 'Al-Qaida' Isuzu truck coming head on the other way. The words "crushed", "sardine" and "can" come to mind.
But the great thing about Addis Ababa's line-cabs – also called blue donkeys – is their sheer efficiency. There are thousands of them trundling through the capital, all crossing and re-crossing it in a complex grid. Once you have worked out where they are going, you can get practically anywhere in Addis Ababa for a handful of coins.
A trip from our house in the Bole Tele area to the centre of town costs one birr (6 UK pence or 11 US cents - if you are a ferengi, a normal taxi driver will try to charge you anything up to 20 birr for the same trip). A trip all the way to the Mercato is just Birr 1.60. It is not over-statement to say that once you have mastered the line-cabs and their ways you have pretty much mastered Addis Ababa.
There is the solidarity of the passengers. Everyone grumbles together when the cab lingers too long at a stop for just one more fare. Children are picked up and passed down the cab and people are always willing to point out a stop to a puzzled foreigner. Someone once told me that on one trip, the conductor tried to over-charge her (an unheard-of event). But the game was up when the other passengers noticed and complained loudly on her behalf.
There is also the fascinating economy that has grown up around the line-cab trade. Because of the low fares, conductors always need lots of change. And the best people to supply them with it are the crowds of beggars and street children who spend their days collecting five and ten cent coins from passersby. At the busier inter-sections you often see a child walk up with a roll of coins and exchange it for a one birr note - walking away with a five cent profit.
Finally, there is also the frequency. If you miss one, there are always three queuing up behind it.
When it comes to running a low-cost, efficient public transport network, Addis Ababa has a lot to teach the "developed" world.
Posted by aheavens at August 8, 2005 7:14 AM