The Potential of Informal Transport to Provide Flexible, Low Carbon Logistics in the Global South
Logistics is the process of planning and executing the efficient transport and storage of goods from point of origin to the point of consumption. The goal of logistics is to meet customer requirements in a timely, cost-effective manner. Freight transport and logistics is an indispensable component of modern societies, with impacts including the following:
- Freight transport and logistics costs have a bearing on the efficiency of the economy and have a significant effect on the cost of commodities consumed.
- Freight transport and logistics play a key role in servicing and retaining industrial and trading activities which are essential wealth generating activities.
- An efficient freight sector makes a strong contribution to the competitiveness of industry and is fundamental to sustaining modern consumer lifestyles.
Transporting goods “just-in-time” from origin to destination to satisfy customer needs is a key characteristic of logistics management. In most developing countries and cities, informal transport can support this role due to its ready access and relative responsiveness, thereby reducing delays and offering more flexible service.
Informal transport consists of unregulated transport modes (e.g. minibuses, vans, station wagons, three-wheelers, motorcycles) with flexible fares, schedules and routes (Cervero and Golub, 2007). Three-wheelers (popularly known as keke in Nigeria) and motorcycles (popularly known as okadas) are used for logistics as well as passenger transport. These modes are cost effective in terms of acquisition and maintenance, and also have the ability to respond to immediate needs to address bottlenecks in the supply chain.
However, there is a general perception that informal transport modes pose a negative externalities including noise and air pollution and road congestion. Research in the field mostly focuses on lack of regulation and safety risks involved in freight logistics using three-wheelers and motorcycles. Focusing only on these negative elements hinders policy makers from giving these modes adequate attention and developing positive potential. Research and policy should also focus on how these informal transport systems have enhanced the standard of living of the populace and improved the rights of individual workers and how policymakers could increase the sustainability of operations.
These modes can also provide frequent freight services from point of production to point of destination to satisfy customer’s demands. In addition, they improve the standard of living of individuals due to their entrepreneurial characteristics. Another important benefit is that motorcycles and three wheelers can access areas that conventional transport cannot reach, especially in developing areas where access to transport is relatively low.
Informal transport also has significant potential to reduce emissions. An inherent advantage in the use of three-wheelers and motorcycles is that they are often operated by their owners, which can contribute a data source for distance and duration of operation to inform strategies to reduce GHG emissions. It has been shown that motorcycles and three wheelers reduce GHG emissions by approximately 90% compared to conventional freight vehicles (Cairo Air Improvement Project, 2000).
If well harnessed, informal transport modes could reduce negative externalities of freight transport. Thus, policymakers should give more attention to leveraging positive benefits of their use, while seeking viable solutions to address negative impacts. Policymakers should also encourage technologies to reduce emissions (e.g. synthetic fuels, compressed natural gas, electrification). Policymakers can therefore promote the use of informal transport by issuing regulations for the use of motorcycles and three-wheelers, setting stricter emission standards for these modes, and increasing awareness among logistics providers on the optimal use of these modes for freight transport and logistics.