Pedal-driven Velocar, New York, 1939
The internal combustion engine has been a mixed blessing in many under-developed countries, particularly in Africa, which, unlike Asia, has been less able to adapt it to local conditions. Conventional motorised vehicles, for example buses, trucks, and cars, are not designed for simple earth roads. Their cost and size means that they cannot economically satisfy the needs of a dispersed and poor clientele. Profitability demands full loads, and even overloading, given that poor roads and mechanical unreliability can limit the number of trips. Short distances and seasonal peaks and troughs in demand imposed by crop marketing structures and the harvest cycle also make it difficult for them to cover their fixed costs. It is not therefore surprising that old and dilapidated vehicles are common, already clapped out when they were imported and on their last legs by the time they get to rural areas.
Even though many clever local adaptations exist and much ingenuity goes into keeping vehicles running against all odds, transportation services remain poor in rural areas. Vehicle operators tend to avoid straying on to low level roads where passengers are few and the risk high of being stuck for days during the rainy season. Those commonly used, such as the ubiquitous two axle seven-ton truck, destroy weak rural roads and bridges, as well as themselves. Bus transport normally cannot leave their circuits on the secondary road system, as the cost of serving few people on poor roads is prohibitive.
Hence the need for developing appropriate means of transport, generally referred to as Intermediate Means of Transport (IMT), adapted to the needs of a rural clientele They should be sized to transport cheaply relatively small loads over short distances. and this at the moment when the service is most needed, often when the roads can be at their worst. They should stand up to poor roads and be easily repaired locally when they do not. They should be capable of off-road use, even on the the tracks and trails which radiate from roads and which lead to where people live. In general, they must sacrifice speed and scale economies of traditional vehicles for a low capital outlay and simplicity in repair. Since they are less destructive of roads and bridges they reduce transport infrastructure costs. Even though their theoretical costs per ton/kilometre may be higher than a conventional vehicle, better adaptation to patterns of demand and economies in road and bridge building greatly reduces total transport costs. They can also complement conventional rural bus services, which charge cheaper fares, often government regulated, by delivering people to points on the secondary and primary roads leading to the towns.
The problem lies not so much in devising appropriate means of transport but in creating the conditions in which they can be ideally manufactured locally or else imported and distributed at a price that people can afford. This applies much more to Africa than to Asia, where local solutions for personal and collective transport abound and a description of the adaptations of even the unpretentious bicycle would fill a volume (if it has not already done so). In Africa, rural incomes are too low to allow widespread ownership of private transport, even bicycles. Worse again, high import tariffs often drive them even further out of reach. The problem here is less one of inventiveness than applying knowledge of what is done elsewhere, leavened by common sense. Also by putting in place credit systems, promoting collective use, lobbying central government to introduce advantageous tariff structures and promoting polyvalent small enterprises capable of manufacturing and repairing simple transport and for that matter light construction equipment and tools suitable for labour-based works.