Senegal’s legendary ‘car rapides’ reaching the end of the line

It could be the end of Senegal’s ‘cars rapides,’ a cheap and convenient local bus service. An important symbol for the country, the vehicles are set to disappear from the streets to make room for new buses that will be imported from Asia. The cars rapides are the most popular way of getting around in the country.

SHOWS: DAKAR, SENEGAL (REUTERS) – The battered blue and yellow ‘car rapide’ minibuses are Dakar institutions.

Covered in Muslim slogans, portraits of Sufi holy men and images of animals and trees, they weave in and out of Dakar’s traffic, muscular young men hanging off the back to call out the routes.

Dakar has a small suburban commuter rail, thousands of yellow taxis and a network of buses, but it is the ‘car rapide’ (meaning literally “fast bus” in French), as they are dubbed in the West African nation, that connects the capital’s far-flung neighbourhoods.

But in a new project financed by various entities, the government is helping the minibus’ assorted private owners to buy larger buses to improve Dakar’s public transport options.

“The World Bank (one of the financiers) and the State of Senegal told us that by 2018, the cars rapides should be completely eliminated from the roads of Dakar. So we’re going to take a car rapide and display it on a landmark street of the city as a symbol because they have lasted a long time but also for tourists to know that this used to be the means of transport in the country. They even took one to France to put it in a museum,” said Mbaye Amar, vice president of the economic interest group Financial Association for Urban Transport Professionals (GIE AFTU).

The colourful mini-buses that roam the streets of the Senegalese capital have gained fame over their forty years that, especially amongst tourists.

“Tourists come into the garage just to get on a car rapide and take a ride, and this won’t happen anymore when the cars rapides disappear,” car rapide driver, Ousmane Ndiaye said.

French carmaker Renault shipped the first ‘cars rapides’ to Senegal in the 1970s, the decade after Senegal’s independence.

Today, maintenance is an expensive, never-ending chore. Their age and their dangerous reputation — it is not an uncommon sight to see a car rapide in an accident or sitting for repairs on the side of a road, part of the reason why they are being switched for white buses from India and China.

The initiative is the latest effort to improve transit in a rapidly growing city choked by congestion, where pedestrians contend for space with parked cars, many streets are unpaved and navigating crossroads can be all but impossible.

Such a transport problem is all too familiar in a continent underserved by mass transit, which also has the highest proportion of people living in poverty. In Dakar, where most residents scrape by on less than $3 a day, most transportation happens by foot.

Some of the cars rapides owners say they they had to sell their buses because repairs became too cumbersome.

But some of the drivers say they were not convinced by the idea of purchasing one of the new buses, saying they cost far more than the car rapide — 25 million CFA francs ($41,774.58) compared to the 2 million CFA francs ($3,341.97).

The higher price is reflected in a difference in fares. While cars rapides’ fares typically do not surpass 150 CFA francs ($0.25), a ride on the newer Tata or Kinglong buses can reach 550 CFA francs ($0.93).

Riders and drivers are split about the choices. Supporters of the newer buses say they are larger and stick to the official routes, while car rapide adherents appreciate their appearance and the fact that all passengers are seated.

“However many TATA buses there are, I don’t think they will cause the car rapide to disappear because they are part of tradition. Plus there will always be certain neighborhouds the TATAs can’t access. It is the cars rapides that are able to access these areas. That’s the difference between the two buses,” said Dakar resident Ibrahima Fall said.

And although bus owners and riders alike said tourists loved seeing and riding the colourful buses, authorities say the minibuses were old, uncomfortable and polluting, and say they are not concerned about whether tourists would be put off once they disappeared.

“What we are losing is a lot less than we are gaining. Imagine all the traffic accidents, the discomfort, the diseases linked to environmental pollution. All of that cannot be measured in relation to what Senegal would have gained from the benefits of tourism attracted by these cars rapides,” said Alioune Thiam, the general director for the Senegal’s Urban Transport Executive Council (CETUD).

Although it is possible that the disappearance of the beloved car rapide might affect tourism, Thiam said it was necessary to turn the page in order to go down a safer and more efficient path for the future of transportation in Dakar.