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DAKAR (Reuters) - The colorful mini-buses that roam the streets of the Senegalese capital of Dakar have gained such fame over their forty years that, more than 4,000 km (2,485 miles) away, an exhibit devoted to them is on display at the Museum of Mankind in Paris.
The battered blue and yellow 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 system, thousands of yellow taxis and a network of buses, but it is the "car rapide" (literally "fast bus" in French) that connects the capital’s far-flung neighborhoods.
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 -- are why they are being switched for white buses from India and China.
In a project financed by the World Bank, Chinese and Senegalese partners, the government is helping the minibus's assorted private owners to buy larger buses to improve Dakar's public transport options. It hopes to completely eliminate the "car rapide" from roads by 2018.
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 under-served 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, transportation is largely on foot.
Although capitals across the continent, from Addis Ababa to Abidjan, have begun transit projects, Africa has the globe's highest rate of deadly road accidents, according to the World Health Organisation.
Tony Dufays, director at the think-tank International Association of Public Transport, said inefficiencies and high transit costs for working-class families were important checks on economic growth in the region.
"If you want to raise economic development, you would need tenfold the amount of transportation that you have today and that can't be provided by private (means)," he said.
Ousmane Ndiaye, a transporter who owns a car rapide, said he sold his first bus for half the purchase price because repairs became too cumbersome. Even with the new bus, some days his driver does not pay him his share, saying the bus broke down.
But Ndiaye was 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 ($41,050.90) compared with the 2 million CFA francs ($3,284.07) he paid for his vehicle.
The higher price is reflected in a difference in fares. Fares on cars rapides typically do not surpass 150 CFA francs ($0.25). A ride on the newer Tata or Kinglong buses can reach 550 CFA francs ($0.90).
Riders and drivers are split about the choices. Supporters of the newer buses say they are larger and stick to the official routes. Car rapide adherents appreciate their appearance and the fact that all passengers are seated.
Even though he prefers the new buses, passenger Ibrahima Fall found it hard to believe cars rapides would disappear, saying certain neighborhoods were more easily accessed by the multicolor minibuses than by their larger competitors.
"However many Tatas there are, I don’t think they will cause the car rapide to disappear, because they are part of tradition,” he said.
Alioune Thiam, the general director for the Senegal's Urban Transport Executive Council (CETUD), said the minibuses were old, uncomfortable and polluting.
And although bus owners and riders alike said tourists loved seeing and riding the colorful buses, Thiam said he was not concerned about whether tourists would be put off once they disappeared.
"What we are losing is a lot less than we are gaining," said Thiam. "Imagine all the traffic accidents, the discomfort, the diseases linked to environmental pollution. All that cannot be measured."
Editing by Larry King