MAPUTO — Every day, tens of thousands of commuters cram into open trucks to begin their commute into Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. City authorities say they are working on a transportation masterplan that will do away with these unsafe and unregulated taxis. However, it is unclear what the alternative is, with only 200 municipal buses serving a city of nearly two million people.
It’s a familiar sight in Maputo - an uncovered farm-style truck lurching toward the sprawling slums that ring the city, full of passengers clinging onto the sides or each other.
It's part of the daily routine for thousands - but many say they have had enough.
The transport situation is sad, really sad, says this man. When it is rush hour, getting onto these open-topped trucks is always a battle and it’s not worth it.
"I wish we could travel in dignity and comfort in proper buses," said a man. "At least it's not raining; that would be so much worse," said another.
Authorities say there hasn’t been a major accident involving these trucks so far.
But injuries often go unreported. That is what happened to Julia Chilaule. She says she was six months pregnant at the time.
"When I was getting on, there were many other people who wanted to get on. I fell down," said " Chilaule. "Somebody pushed me. I didn’t see who... When this happened I was pregnant. Two days later I lost the baby.”
Despite what happened, Chilaule hasn’t stopped using these lorries.
"I am afraid," she said, "but I don’t have another option."
Authorities say they want to get rid of the truck taxis, but it's not that simple, says Joao Matlombe, Maputo City Transport manager.
“Because we have lack of transport. Our public transport is not enough to support the demand. What is happening is that people are using trucks to transport people," Matlombe said.
When asked if the trucks are licensed, Matlombe responded, "No, they are not licensed but the problem is how can I tell those trucks not to carry people if I don’t have a solution to carry the people and to take people from one point to another point."
So how did the city come to rely so heavily on these open lorries?
Six years ago authorities decided not to give out licences for 15-seat taxis - the kind that are popular across the region. They hoped private operators would buy larger vehicles to ferry more passengers, easing congestion.
Matlombe says the decision backfired.
"Our decision wasn’t successful because it was necessary also to give them facilities to get loans, to get new buses," he said.
Instead - old, rundown 15-seater taxis still clog the streets, but they only cover short distances to boost their fares. The only option if you want to travel longer distances are the lorries.
Meanwhile, Mozambique’s economy is growing at breakneck speed and more and more people are flooding into its capital. The average salary is $100 a month. On average, 20 percent of that goes on transport. But it is not enough to make the taxi business viable. There are fewer and fewer taxis on the roads.
So what about municipal buses? Last year the city bought 150 new gas-fueled buses from an Indian company, Tata. It was a controversial deal because Mozambican President Armando Guebuza is a shareholder in the local subsidiary.
"A third of the buses are already out of commission, because the deal didn’t include spare parts or training," he said. "And recently the municipality ran out of gas to fill them for a week leaving commuters even more reliant on the truck taxis."
Authorities say more buses are not the answer. Matlombe says the city is drawing up a transport masterplan, modeled on other cities like London, Bogotá and Las Vegas that have successfully used dedicated bus lanes to solve their transport headaches.
"We are trying to reorganize the whole system," he said. "We decided instead of buying more buses we need to reorganize the roads. We need to invest in bus lanes, it is very important. Because now buses take more than two hours. If we add more buses, the traffic will increase."
Another challenge will be getting people to pay more for an upgraded transport service. The last time the government tried to do that, in 2008, it had to back down in the face of protests. Authorities say they intend to increase transport fares by the end of the year but they have yet to announce by how much.