Development-induced displacement in Dakar: the BRT’s impact on informal transport workers

Dakar’s BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) project has been touted as a modern, sustainable solution to the city’s congestion problems. But is the ‘real’ urban economy being sacrificed at the altar of ‘Progress’? 

Construction site for BRT

At the end of the 1980s/early 1990s, the Senegalese authorities initiated a series of economic and social reforms covering all sectors of economic and social life, including transport. A decade or so later, Dakar’s BRT - Bus Rapid Transit - was conceived.

BRT is a system of high level bus transport designed to increase the efficiency and capacity in cities via dedicated road lanes (i.e. lanes that can’t be used by other vehicles). It involves building new roads, bus stations and depots, interchanges and terminals along routes that traverse cities. Also known as the High Level Bus Service (BHLS) system (in French), BRT is equipped with technology that allows the passenger to pay before boarding the bus. The removal of buses from traffic congestion reduces operating costs, allowing them to compete with alternative modes of transport.

Construction of BRT-road

The idea of establishing a BRT in Dakar, dating to 2002, was to have a single high-capacity line leading to downtown Dakar and a limited network of feeder lines connecting the populations of Pikine and Guédiawaye. The BRT was a flagship project to hasten transition towards ‘sustainable’ public transport, according to the Executive Council of Urban Transports of Dakar (CETUD).

The purpose of Dakar’s BRT, as reflected in official discourse, was to create a ‘traveller-friendly urban landscape’. The project effectively belongs to the state, which finances infrastructure, bus stations, systems, ticketing systems and stations. However, once operating the buses become profitable, it is expected that Dakar’s BRT will be entrusted to private operators.

To achieve its objectives, the BRT route crosses the main areas of employment in the informal sector, mainly in Parcelles Assainies, Pikine and Guédiawaye, which account for nearly one in two jobs in the Dakar region. These last hubs of employment have been framed as ‘source of poor quality services’ by advocates of the project, who note the problems they pose in terms of safety, congestion and pollution.

Dakar’s BRT presumes eradication of these pre-existing informal transport systems along its route.

Who is likely to be affected by this transformation? What are the future prospects of informal transport workers, and those whose livelihoods are/were connected to theirs through a multitude of small trades? How do these groups perceive the city’s ‘modernization’?

Research on the Dakar BRT

To answer these questions, data was compiled from field surveys conducted by a research team of trade union representatives led by the Laboratory of Human Geography (LABOGEHU) at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal. Together, we undertook questionnaire surveys among 181 workers (134 men and 47 women) in the Dakar transport industry between September 11 to 13th in 2019 on 6 sites located on the BRT axis: Petersen, Grand-Yoff, Lat-Dior, Liberté 6 roundabout, Guédiawaye and Case-bi. A total of 180 individual questionnaires were administered, along with three focus groups on current issues and challenges facing transport workers, who were also quizzed on their ideas for reforming the informal transport industry, and attitudes towards BRT. Three in-depth interviews were conducted to explore livelihoods. The workers interviewed were all at least 15 years old. Those under 35 make up more than 43% of the sample population; 22% were women.

A report based on the findings of this research was commissioned by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. This report is drawn on extensively in this article, and remains an important source of information and analysis of the likely social and economic impact of the Dakar BRT on low-income populations.  

Findings: Who are Dakar’s Informal Transport Workers?

Workers on the research sites fall into 3 categories of the twenty or so trades identified: travel facilitators at stations and stops (drivers/coxers and station/stop managers); those working in vehicle maintenance automobiles (mechanic, electrician, sheet metal worker, upholsterer, cleaner, etc.), and those engaged in commercial activities connected with transport such as hawkers.

According to the manager of Grand-Yoff garage: ‘The [Grand Yoff] garage has 200 licensed drivers, 300 other non-permanent drivers, 10 garage owners, 180 employees, 57 itinerant workers, and 84 shopkeepers… The chairman has made changes in the garage to allow non permanent drivers to support themselves... In total, the garage has 1,400 people doing all types of work related to the transport sector.’

Whether male or female, the level of education of workers is low overall, but lower among men. Among women, 18% said they had reached secondary education level, compared to 10% of men. Only 1 in 6 workers said they had received additional training. The vast majority of workers experience acute job insecurity: 3% of women say they have a contract compared to 8% of men.

Working hours are long for both men and women: 57% of men say they stay at work for more than 12 hours compared to 45% of women, whose days are likely to be extended by domestic chores at home. Nearly a quarter (23.1%) receive at most 55,000 CFA francs in monthly income [minimum wage]. More than 1/3 of workers (36.9%) earn their income from day to day and more than half (55.3%) receive their income directly from customers.
What does all this tell us?

Informal transport is generally an insecure sector in which workers are rarely employed on a contractual basis; work is irregular yet hours are long. This underlines the marginal status of those likely to be displaced by the BRT. It also points to the significance of the informal transport economy in socially and economically integrating some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. It is a resource they draw on to survive. As such, it is hardly surprising ITDP warned in 2004 that it ‘is certain that this [BRT] will have a huge impact on the daily lives of thousands of transport workers and owners. These people are likely to be extremely at risk from change and their involvement in operational design is crucial.’ (Hook, W., & Gautier, A. (2004). Pre-Feasibility Study for Bus Rapid Transit in Dakar, Senegal. ITDP. Institute for Transportation & Development Policy)

Displacement of Livelihoods and Forced Evictions

Our research found that the consequences of the BRT for informal transport workers were indeed likely to be far reaching, yet little had been done to engage them in the project’s initial phase. At the time research was conducted (76.5 percent), many workers were simply not aware of the BRT.

Of those surveyed, more than 54% of workers believed they are at the risk of losing their livelihoods as a consequence of the BRT. One worker interviewed said: ‘The BRT is not a good thing because it will take everything away from us. Another worker at Petersen said: ‘BRT will increase unemployment in this country… there will be unfair competition, the BRT will affect our income and does not benefit many people but only one category of people’. Yet another at Lat-Dior bus station said: ‘This is a project that will destroy informal work’.

The following quotations reflect the importance of the informal transport system as a source of livelihood for those interviewed, and their fears: ‘This garage has existed since 1992. We have no other source of income and we are heads of families.’ (Grand Médine clando garage manager).  ‘I had my mechanic garage in the house there and I don’t know what to do with my apprentices’. (Mechanic, Grand Médine underground garage).’ Another mechanic at Grand Médine underground garage said: ‘Here is our house (he points to it). I had built my garage next door to earn a living’.

Beyond the transport sector, a shoe seller at Guédiawaye bus station said: ‘Since 1998, I have been selling shoes here. …. If they ask me to leave, I don't even know where to go…’ .  A market tradesman at Liberté 6 bus station said: ‘it will just promote insecurity. Some may turn to banditry if they have nowhere to go’.

Several respondents already reported experiencing eviction and displacement:
‘The town hall carried out an eviction operation against vendors and their canteens were confiscated…..‘ At Petersen, ‘the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project does not envisage the resettlement of those affected even if they are likely to be compensated’. (Grand Yoff bus station manager).  

‘When we protest, BRT officials tell us that in Grand-Médine, it is houses that are destroyed, whereas for us, it is just canteens’. [We should be grateful]. P. K., market delegate, Liberté 6 bus station).  

‘When we demanded resettlement sites, they told us that it was not up to them to resettle us, because they had not put us here’. (Sheet metal worker, Guédiawaye bus station).  


The International Association for Public Transport (UITP) warned about the adverse consequences of modernization schemes adopted in BRT projects on pre-existing informal transport systems. In a 2019 publication, it cited the ‘lack of concrete knowledge of decision-makers on the (possible) effects of BRT on social or urban factors’, and proposed instead co-opting the informal sector, upgrading it to complement BRT corridors. (Transforming Cities with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Systems. Brussels.  The National Union of Road Carriers of Senegal (Gora Khouma) has made similar arguments.  

These warnings do not appear to be heeded. The focus instead is on those who might benefit: ‘The operation could benefit 1500 people’, the CEO of CETUD told Le Soleil  (28/10/2019). In view of the thousands of disadvantaged workers evicted or at risk of eviction thanks to the BRT, these words seem to reflect a myopia at the heart of this modernisation operation. Where will the hundreds, possibly thousands of displaced real-economy workers go if or when they are displaced by the BRT? What will become of them?

Conservative estimates around 2020 suggested a loss of some 3,500 livelihoods could occur, if no action is taken in mitigation. In reality, the actual figure could be two or even three times that figure.

Informal transport workers themselves were clear in their views: the BRT cannot come into being at their expense. Many men (30 percent) said they should be integrated into the BRT system, since they work in transport. Many of those in the most precarious of occupations -  in which women are overrepresented  - hawkers, food vendors, traders and ticket-sellers - have not been taken into account in the authorities’ assessments of the social and economic impact of the BRT. A main concern for women (38.9 percent), a lesser proportion of whom are employed in the transport sector, is a need for work areas occupied by informal workers to be secured; if necessary, to be relocated.  

None of this is to suggest modernization should not occur. It is to point out urban transport planning and implementation must build on and integrate extant public transport systems.  The right approach is one with the potential to formalise important parts of the informal transport economy, improving working conditions and livelihoods for workers. This in turn will benefit passengers and cities as a whole. For instance, a reduction of working hours would surely cut accident rates and dangerous driving. As for informal transport systems, these should surely not be maligned or dismissed. Their importance in Dakar will remain, because the BRT may not be affordable for all, and cannot fulfill all the city’s transport needs. Feeder routes (and travel to and from them for communities further afield) will remain. Many of these will remain informal.

This article is part of the Dossier Urban Displacement. Forced Evictions: Stories from the Frontline in African Cities