Reviving Buses: Putting Transport On A More Sustainable Pathway 

If public transport is safer and environmentally better because it emits less pollutants per passenger than cars, which it is, why is it not growing? Special Correspondent DOUGLAS RASBASH argues that the heart of the problem of public transport in Botswana is the structure of the industry


There is increasing interest in public transport because of various reasons. Firstly, it is more efficient than cars, takes up less road space per passenger, and causing less congestion.

Public transport is better environmentally, emitting less pollutants per passenger than cars, and is also safer. So why isn’t public transport usage growing?

This item takes a practical view of public transport in Botswana to put it back on track to be the people’s transport. The heart of the problem of public transport supply in Botswana is the structure of the industry. This is most effectively shown by the distribution of permits.

The vast majority – some 95% of bus permits are held by small companies or individuals as shown in the graph. Only a handful of companies have five or more bus operating permits. This makes it impossible for the industry to gain economies of scale and to generate investment to improve the service quality that is needed.

As of 2015, a total of 6166 permits had been issued to 4112 legal entities. A country with a small population, mostly living in concentrated areas, should have no more than 30 operators, not four thousand.


Service quality and enforcement becomes a serious challenge with so many small bus operators. The industry is too fragmented to be effectively regulated. Corruption is rife in the bus industry, most notably in obtaining driver’s licences, road worthiness certificates and operating permits.

Quality licensing needs to replace quantity licensing, which is what the permit system is about. While the quantity licence correctly covers the route and vehicle type, the quality licence sets out all of the quality parameters that the licence holder must comply with.

This would include age and condition of vehicle, driver training, published time tables, frequency, hours of continuous driving, safety record and environmental effects such exhaust emissions.

The pricing of bus services is not determined by bus operators but by the Department of Road Transport and Safety, which is also the regulatory authority, the concept being to ensure that passenger fares are not excessive. But while this is a good objective, it does also constrain the improvement in service quality through lack of investment.

Plain to see

Simply stated, the fares are not high enough to provide for re-fleeting with higher quality and newer vehicles. The result is plain to see – very old buses in poor condition and even compromised safety, most obviously worn tyres.

Buses may not even comply with contemporary international safety standards. Such standards would require side and front impact testing, anti-rolling, fire containment and quick escape facilities. Buses are actually death traps on wheels in their current state.

Moreover, annual vehicle road worthiness testing is a farce where a few pula given to the test engineers will secure a certificate. The traffic police turn a blind eye to vehicle condition, focussing only on the disc and licence. Any wonder why there are such horrendous bus accidents?

Another issue concerns the availability of public transport over 24 hours. Because there is no provision that allows bus operators to charge more between say 7pm and 5am, public transport is not provided. This makes it hard for the shift worker and allows for more drunk driving at weekends.

One of the points to debate is whether the government should subsidise Air Botswana that carries 500 generally wealthy passengers per day or buses that carry 500,000 mostly poorer people every day. It is a matter equity and of policy.

Ceaseless rise

But there is no national transport policy that would transparently and unequivocally set out the position of the government on public transport – despite four attempts since 2006, including one written by the author of this feature. Readers can dig it out at

In 2010, there were 120,000 road vehicles registered. In 2024, the figure is 620,000, of which 80 % are cars and light duty vehicles like bakkies. This ceaseless rise in vehicle ownership – which has doubled every 10 years – is because the government indirectly subsides private ownership and fails to support public transport.

It does this by having low taxes on imported cars, no mandatory insurance or annual road worthiness inspection, and by not helping bus operators to retain and increase their share of passenger transport. Roads seem to have the allure of development – grade separation indicating the nation is somehow getting there. Decision makers, and indeed the electorate, are more impressed with four lane roads than, say, a bus-rapid transit system.

And yet the adage holds true that obesity is not reduced by loosening one’s belt. In other words, building more and more road capacity does not solve the problem of transport inefficiency. This positive attitude towards roads and cars and not public transport might be linked to the current socio-economic status quo of the mind-set of Batswana that cars are associated with wealth and busses with poverty.

Of course, we all know that this is far from the truth. Yet it seems so easy to spend P1.2 billion on 20km of a four-lane road from Game City to Boatle but not to build a bus park-and-ride scheme with brand new buses operating a five-minute interval time-table at half the cost.

Note that a high capacity bendy-bus like the Volvo hybrid bus shown carries 126 people each. Note that it is a hybrid vehicle and so it runs on battery in the city centre and bus stops, thus reducing noise and air pollution.

The bus shown is 18m in length – the same as the ubiquitous articulated truck.


As has become a hallmark of Gazette features, it is important to suggest solutions to problems, which in this case is improving public transport.

  • Complete the Botswana Integrated Transport Policy.
  • Establish and empower a National Transport Authority to oversee the transformation.
  • Promote market liberalisation, diversification to cover all segments.
  • Set up a special public transport fund that can be used to provide cheaper loans for buying new buses.
  • Have fewer larger public transport operators, reducing the proportion of permits issued for small vehicle owner-operated public transport companies.
  • Strengthen the Taxi and Combi Associations to provide more effective self-regulation.
  • Devolve regulatory responsibility for public transport to local government.
  • Reduce public transport drivers’ hours.
  • Change to quality licensing for buses
  • Instigate a demerit system for drivers of all vehicles.
  • Phase out the permit systems and quantitative controls.
  • Alter regulations to enable bus priority projects to be implemented.
  • Reduce the cost of vehicle licences in proportion to fleet size.
  • Institute more certification centres for commercial drivers.
  • Outsource vehicle licensing, driver licensing, driver training and licensing, and vehicle examination.
  • Have local government providing some of the services of the regulatory authority.
  • Establish certification of garages for vehicle maintenance and road worthiness testing.
  • Ensure that timetables and fare structures are published and adhered to.
  • Provide for private ownership of bus interchanges by developers.
  • Provide for charging operators for using infrastructure.
  • Introduce city centre parking fees and ideally congestion changing to disincentivise use of private vehicles.

To conclude, decision-makers need to steer away from more road-building and cars to a sustainable pathway by promoting public transport.