The used car problem
It’s tempting but unsatisfactory to blame poverty and weak regulation for the dumping of used vehicles in Africa.
Many rich countries have made shifting from fossil fuel to electric vehicles (EVs) a key strategy for decarbonizing their transport sectors to address climate change. In the US, the Biden administration has announced plans to electrify the entire federal fleet and aims for EVs to be 50% of all new car sales by 2030. The administration has also allocated billions of dollars in tax credits to stimulate the market uptake of electric vehicles. Nearly all EU member states have similar forms of fiscal support.
At the same time that rich countries are mandating and subsidizing cleaner, more efficient cars at home, they continue to ship diesel and gas-guzzling vehicles in increasingly large numbers to low-income countries around the world. The US, for instance, exported $8 billion worth of used passenger vehicles in 2021, up from about $6 billion in 2017.
Used vehicles get a second life as an affordable transportation option in Africa. They also create livelihoods for millions of people including mechanics, sprayers, and other garage operators. The trouble, however, is that many of the vehicles are highly polluting and tend to be unsafe to drive. The practice of removing their catalytic converters and other modifications to source precious metals makes them even more polluting. In the end, simply transferring old vehicles elsewhere undermines global and local goals to move toward safe and low-emissions transport.
The continuing use of Africa and other low-income regions of the world as the dumping site for obsolete, unsafe, dirty, and, often, faulty used vehicles by rich countries is often attributed to poverty, low income, poor access to car loans, and weak regulation. The suggestion here is that, while vehicle consumers in the continent may not inherently prefer used over new vehicles at similar prices, they are often income-constrained and used vehicles are significantly cheaper. Auto loans too are unaffordable to most, limiting access to the vehicle hire purchase market to a few high-income people. These factors make brand-new vehicles unaffordable to the majority.
Meanwhile, environmental and public health protection standards against used vehicle harms are often low, and poorly enforced. The cost of repairing old vehicles too is relatively low. Together, these factors are said to elevate the demand for used vehicles, which are often in ready supply due to the demand for new cars and stringent recycling policies in wealthier countries.
Our work on Ghana as a case study suggests, however, that this low-income—weak regulation explanation tells us only so much about used vehicle dependency. It also tends to limit policy tools to often ineffective bans and import restrictions. A more holistic view reveals more at play and opens up more policy options.
Ghana has revised some of the planning laws it inherited from its colonial experience. Nevertheless, as with their counterparts in other African countries, the attitudes and practices of Ghanaian politicians and professionals around planning, transport and land use still reflect colonial frameworks and mentalities. These practices continue to promote the spatial separation of work and other activities far from home, compelling people to travel more.
Like much of Africa, a great number of people in Ghana meet their travel needs through walking. For longer distances, however, they rely on the ubiquitous minibuses (popularly called “tro-tro”), traditional taxis and, in recent times, ride-hailing and “Okada” (motorcycles) have also come into use. While being popular in the sense that they are widely used, these privately-run transport modes remain marginal in terms of public support and investment.
The Government of Ghana and its “development partners” direct their high-quality bus investments into bus rapid transit (BRT) projects, which do not always work as planned, leaving gaps. Furthermore, road construction, which induces more spread-out land use, and, hence, encourages more travel, is often prioritized over user-oriented public transport provision. The roads are primarily designed for cars and, therefore, often lack pedestrian pathways, crossovers and bicycle lanes.
This practice of channeling public resources—streets/roads, finance, planning laws, and land-use systems—to compel or encourage more traveling without commensurate investment in user-oriented public transport provision creates room for higher-income individuals to import vehicles for personal and commercial uses.
As is true across the world, vehicle ownership in Ghana carries symbolic prestige. This, together with the discomfort, inefficiencies, and other problems in the tro-tro or minibus sector, further contributes to the culture of private vehicle consumption. The demand is easily met by importers focused on cheaper used vehicles in abundant supply. Well-documented corruption in the Customs Service also undermines the effective enforcement of regulations for importing used vehicles.
Currently, the focus on weak regulation and poverty leads to imposing bans and penalties on used vehicle imports as the primary policy response to Africa’s used vehicle dependency. The Ghanaian experience suggests, however, that a broader view that considers land-use patterns and underinvestment dynamics around public and popular transport systems could facilitate new, potentially more successful policy options.
These include reorganizing town and city planning to encourage mixed land-use and transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly development. This way, people can live, work and shop in the same area, so they travel less. Making public transport as well as walking and cycling cleaner, safer, efficient, and more attractive can also be a great strategy to reduce private vehicle use and overall vehicle consumption.
Specific strategies to consider include stronger investments in related non-motorized and public transport infrastructure, such as dedicated bus lanes and proper bus stops, stations and passenger information, as well as providing tax relief and financial support for new vehicles used for public transport purposes. Minibus recapitalization programs, as occurring in South Africa, can be a great way to introduce higher occupancy, low emissions, and safer vehicles. Minibus electrification itself including investing in emerging local electrification initiatives in the continent will be a great option to explore. This is also a social justice issue, given that the majority and lower-income people use these forms of shared mobility.
Overall, there is a need for a policy shift away from used vehicle import bans and the construction of more and more expensive roads that help drive this demand. Instead, a broader more holistic view of used vehicle dependency would suggest a wider array of broader interventions for reducing auto-mobility dependency overall and with it used vehicle consumption and all the socio-environmental harms it brings.