Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Problem is not the Pehn-Pehn

"These guys are like suicide bombers," my Liberian friend sighed from behind the wheel as our car slowly made our way through central Monrovia recently. Outside of our vehicle, an kamikaze-like swirl of motorbikes flitted within inches of our car, seeming to bounce off the fenders of the vehicle in front. Any gap between cars of more than a few feet was ample territory to be conquered, and was soon filled with buzzing bikes.  In what has become a typical scene on Monrovia's streets the motorbikes, known locally as pehn-pehns (or pen-pens), for the sound of their endlessly repetitive bleating horns, created a chaotic choreography set to their own cacophony, making the movement of the car down the block stressful and difficult.

Pehn-pehns have never been widely beloved among Liberians, but seem to be particularly loathed by those Monrovians who have the luxurious option of moving around by private vehicle. Even among Liberians who take pehn-pehns regularly, pehn-pehn operators are held somewhere between a head-shaking disregard and a teeth-clenching outrage. There seen as lawless, senseless. Although the streets of many African cities swarm with motorbikes, they are a particularly notable feature of Monrovia, a city whose contemporary crowding seems most noticeable in three expects: its sprawling suburbs, its overstuffed slums, and its standstill street traffic.

As Monrovia's economy has burgeoned in the last few years, the capital's once-potholed and empty main roads, now smoothed over with recent tarmac, have filled with vehicles, resulting in crawling congestion during daylight hours, particularly during an increasingly-epic rush hour along the city's spine, Tubman Boulevard, from the city's eastern residential fringe into the commercial center. While these jams pale in comparison to the legendary Lagosian go-slows or Accra's dawn-to-dusk parking lots, in the last few years have Monrovians partaken in that most mundane of moans: complaining about the endless traffic.

Partly, geography is to blame: stretched across a long peninsula, Monrovia now spills across the swampy plains to its north and east. Connected by a single road, the city is poorly-equipped to handle commuter traffic from its historic central area to the now-burgeoning suburban areas such as Paynesville and Duazohn, which stretch for as much as twenty miles from the heart of the city. The traffic problem worsens each month as each container ship full of cars unloads at the city's Freeport, and has grown noticeably worse, somewhat ironically, with the addition, starting last year, of a series of low-function traffic lights at major intersections along Tubman's length, which seem to ensure bottlenecks along the city's single street.

Packs of Pehn-pehns dart dangerously through this traffic, riding the double-yellow line down the center of Tubman as if they were merely inches wide, "playing chicken" with oncoming traffic as they rush head-on towards a line of side-view mirrors. There's no question its dangerous and annoying.  It's also envy-inducing to see travelers zipping past standstill vehicles, their ride costing less than a dollar.

Much is made in the press about the background of pen-pen drivers, most of whom are young and male. I've read countless press reports that declare pehn-pehn riders to largely ex-combatants, or mostly foreigners from Nigeria, or criminals. Speculation that drivers are drunk or high are frequently voiced-who knows if its true. I've never seen any survey statistics to back this up, much less a count of just how many pen-pens operate in Monrovia, although the riders are organized into a union.

What's less disputable is that pehn-pehns, despite their dangers and annoyances, constitute an essential form of affordable transportation for a great number of Monrovians, and are therefore an irreplaceable component of the transport infrastructure of a fast-growing city where there are few forms of public transport. Even if Liberia's National Transit Agency doubled the fleet of Indian-donated buses that ply Monrovia's streets, pehn-pehns would remain a vital form of transport for the vast majority of the city. The result is an inverse relationship between their irreplaceability and the scorn they engender.

The demographics of the drivers aside, an unaddressed issue in the loathing the pehn-pehns bring, is that their role in the city's transport system has not been formalized and integrated thoughtfully. The placement of traffic lights at many intersections has further impeded traffic movement; many big intersections are crowded and impassible not necessarily because of the volume of automobiles, but due to curbside taxi and pehn-pehn parking areas, where commuters switch between shared taxis and motorbikes to continue their journey. These intermodal zones are not officially designated or set aside, and so slowing taxis and rows of parked motorbikes block a lane, causing cars to squeeze by.

Image courtesy FrontPageAfrica 

Authorities in Liberia have often taken an adversarial approach to the pen-pen drivers and their representatives, seeming to transform the general public's dislike into draconian (and vague) regulations. In the last few years, the government has imposed a series of increasingly-aggressive restrictions on pen-pen movement, of which last week's sudden ban is the most severe. In 2011, the Liberian National Police imposed a night-time curfew for motorbikes, supposedly in to thwart armed robbers from their get-away vehicles of choice. Perhaps surprisingly, this curfew has held.
"Our biggest problem is motorcyclists. The Motorcycle Union is growing almost every day. You have new riders coming on the streets every day, and many of them are not trained. They do not understand the traffic rules, and they don't want to protect themselves," --Minister of Transport Tornorlah Varpilah, October 29th
In a city still mostly devoid of formal or even informal employment opportunities for the undereducated youth of the city, hopping behind a pehn-pehn and immediately collecting 20 or 50 LD per ride is an all-too-rare means to find enough to eat rice each day, if not a rung on the ladder to any kind of economic self-sufficiency.

I've had my run-ins with pehn-pehns, quite literally: for every 18 months that I've lived in Monrovia, I've had a motorbike crash into my car, sometimes while I was driving. No one has been hurt, thankfully, but the aftermath of each has been a highly unpleasant confrontation in which I was threatened with physical violence and monetary pay-offs were demanded, even though it wasn't my fault that my vehicle was hit and damaged. I wouldn't recommend the experience to anyone. Nearly every car trip in the city features an aggressive encounter with a motorbike, whether a close cut-off or near-collision. It is this disregard for the rules of the road that partly explains the widespread disdain for pen-pen drivers, but equally, I think, is the class distinction between the possibly-ex-rebel drivers and the rest of the public, be they office workers or ministers. Many Liberians abhor disorderliness, which the risky, careless motorbikes seems to embody.

I am fully supportive of regulations for the motorbikes, including those that are being debated this week: ensuring that drivers are licensed and trained, that helmets are worn, and safe driving is practiced. But this latest edict, effectively outlawing most journeys by motorbikes, seems not so much an attempt to improve safety but to rid Monrovia's auto lanes of a pestering annoyance of having to share the road with pehn-pehns. This has its connotations in the canyon-like class divides in this city, where the better-off openly disdain their poverty-stricken fellow citizens, who struggle to get by. Rather than decreeing that motorbikes (and the people that operate them and reply on them) disappear, Monrovia would be better off if it developed a comprehensive plan to carve out dedicated space for the city's motorbikes, and their users, and recognized how both are vital and beneficial to this city and its residents.

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