Senegal's legendary 'car rapides' reaching the end of the line

Fri Nov 13, 2015 5:44am EST
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By Makini Brice

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.   Continued...

A man runs to catch a ride on a "car rapide" in Dakar, Senegal, October 29, 2015. REUTERS/Makini Brice