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Counting Fishes…Or Tap Taps !


Photo of  Haitian Tap Tap, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, User Teemeah

I want to share with you an experience that convinced me that in Haiti a better future is possible.

My story begins shortly after the 2010 earthquake.  Those days were quite memorable for the impassable roads filed with debris, destroyed buildings and those on the verge of collapsing, many thousands of people in the ruins, trying to survive, or just staring down in a state of shock, silenced by fear and pain.

In the midst of the chaos, there were the Tap Taps.  Elaborately painted, Tap Taps are a type of private bus constructed by fashioning a metal sheet over the flat bed of a small pickup truck and are found everywhere in Haiti. I wondered whether Tap Taps held important lessons which could help me better understand Haiti as the then newly appointed leader of the IDB’s team in the country.  As a transport specialist, I was fascinated and eager to know what kind of transportation system could function in the shattered city of Port au Prince.

One day my curiosity led me to board a Tap Tap.  It was an unforgettable experience.  There were twenty people packed in a space that, at best, could and should accommodate ten.  Pressed together, I joined mothers huddled with children, students clutching backpacks, and workers covered in exhaustion from their daily grind.  It seemed my Tap Tap crawled along so slowly that I was getting nowhere.

I couldn’t figure out how the system functioned.  I wondered how many Tap Taps there were.  Who assigned the routes?  What was their business model?  Did they have maintenance and operations facilities, or a growth strategy?  How much was the fare, and how did they set it?  Did they receive government subsidies?  Were they insured?  What kinds of security challenges did they face and how did they respond?  I had no idea where to begin finding the answers, especially in a country that lacked a municipal transportation bureaucracy, and a city whose infrastructure had been largely destroyed on January 12, 2010.

Let me return to those days that immediately followed the earthquake, when my IDB colleagues and I lived together in portable containers, were chauffeured about in armored vehicles, worked long days alongside one another, ate our meals and held late night discussions under a tarp that shielded us from the elements.  We came to know each other well, and built life-long friendships under that tarp.

One morning I noticed, at the very back of our cafeteria, two elderly gentlemen enjoying their breakfast in silence.  I didn’t recognize them and so turned to my colleagues.    One responded, “I don’t know.  They keep to themselves.  They hang out here, but don’t talk to anyone, except for a large group of young people that come and go.”  I thought to myself, “that’s odd,” but then the day’s demands swept me in another direction.

A month later, the two men came to visit me, to present me with a copy of their report, asking that I deliver it to the IDB’s Transport Division Chief who had contracted them to prepare it.  Little did they know that I had been the previous chief for the Transport Division immediately before moving to Haiti.  They explained that they had come to Haiti to study public transportation, using our camp as their base of operations.  “What did you discover?” I asked with a bit of skepticism, convinced that they could not have possibly learned much in this city devoid of functional infrastructure and accessible data.

One of them was quick to reply, “We found that the TapTaps have an 80% profitability, there are no large companies operating in the space as most owners have only one or two vehicles at most, the businesses are safe and sound and operate without mafias that control entry into the market place, the fare is fixed at 6 Gourdes even though there are no coins smaller than 5 Gourdes so people pay 10 Gourdes without complaining, routes are not formally assigned but are respected and maintained voluntarily, there are no fixed stops so people get off and on wherever they need to do so….”

I was amazed at the breadth and confidence with which he spoke as he continued to spit out data points.  Just then the less talkative gentleman interrupted, “And there are 13,724 tap taps in Port au Prince.” “What?” I turned to him in a most incredulous tone.

And that’s when I discovered who they were.  One was a renowned professor from the University of California at Berkeley, the other from the University of the Sorbonne, a professor emeritus in the economics of transport.  Moved by the earthquake, they had traveled to do field work and research in Haiti.  They had hired a small army of students, whom they trained and met with daily in our breakfast encampment.  The students had been sent out to make hundreds of trips on Tap Taps, collect data, observe from designated corners, interview drivers, and measure times and travel distances.

“You can’t possibly know how many Tap Taps there are, that’s a creative fiction, right?” I asked.  They responded in an indignant tone, “Sir, we are respected international experts.  We don’t make up numbers!  We calculated the number of tap taps using the ‘fish in the pond’ methodology.”  “Fish in the what?” I asked.  “Fish in the pond.  It’s the same methodology used to determine how many fish live in a lake.  On the first day, you count how many fish you catch, you tag them and return them to the lake.  You repeat this for several days, and then by applying simple statistical formulas related to the probability of repetition, you can calculate how many fish there are.  It’s very simple.”

“We did the same thing in the streets of Port au Prince, identifying the Tap Taps through drawings, stationing the students at different corners and counting how often the Tap Taps returned. There are 13,724.”  They handed me the report, said “au revoir,” turned and walked away, leaving me with three important lessons.

First, these elderly gentlemen had done what had seemed impossible.  They reminded me we can often conquer the impossible with hard work and creativity.  It’s too easy to fall back on the pretext of institutional weakness to explain failure, and to label things as impossible.  In Haiti, even the most difficult things are possible.

Second, the Haitians that relied on Tap Taps for transportation endured tight spaces in smothering heat for inordinate amounts of time.  And they did so in silence, with great patience and respect.  They endured conditions that would cause most others to become irate and violent, but they were peaceful and serene.

And third, in my country, where most fees for service are collected up front for good reason, people would have left the vehicle and refused to pay on account of the quality of service.  But in Haiti, where fees are collected when disembarking, these passengers, who received what could only be described as a poor level of service, still did the honest thing.  They climbed down, walked slowly to the front passenger side, and paid their 10 Gourdes before walking away.

The Haiti I have come to know has endless promise and possibilities.  And during the worst disaster that Haiti has experienced in the modern era, the Tap Taps continued to be an effective, low-cost and reliable means of transport for the vast majority of Haiti’s people.

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