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Students Work On Improving Mass Transportation in Africa
May 10, 2011
Four Georgetown students traveled to Mali over spring break to meet with government officials about implementing a new public transportation system in the capital city of Bamako.

Among the team were Mathematics major Anthony Conyers (C’12) and Biology and Government double major Michael Barclay (C’12), who pitched the project as an assignment for their class on “Science and Society: Global Challenges.” The course is part of the College’s Program on Science in the Public Interest (SPI), which asks students to take their knowledge beyond the classroom by building projects that could be implemented as public policy or lead to positive social change. Working with classmates Joseph Luk (SFS’11) and Sean Quigley (SFS’12), Conyers and Barclay created a plan to lower worldwide energy consumption, and then received a grant that helped them travel to Africa to begin their field research.
“Our project began as a challenge to tackle a large, international problem: meeting global energy demand,” Barclay explained. “Through our group research, we found that most of the increase in global energy demand for liquid fuels, like oil, is projected to come from developing countries, and mostly in the transportation sector.” The group tried to find a growing city that would benefit from a reduction in energy consumption through increased public transportation. “Bamako, the capital of Mali, is a relatively small city of 1.8 million [people] with exceptionally low car ownership, but is currently the sixth fastest growing city in the world,” Barclay continued. “Bamako stood out as a city where an efficient public transportation system could have a large impact on mitigating the increase in oil consumption.”
The students proposed that the city implement a popular new transportation option known as Bus Rapid Transit. The system allows buses to use their own street lane and has a ticketing system just like most city subway systems. “BRT is about 10 to 100 times cheaper per kilometer than most subway systems, [and] so is the system of choice for many developing cities,” Barclay explained. “BRT would reduce traffic fatalities, clear traffic congestion, mitigate smog, and increase mobility for passengers in Bamako.”
As part of the fall semester course, the students pitched their projects to various foundations, and were thrilled when they received a grant from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation that made it possible for them to travel to Africa to perform a feasibility study for their plan. “We met with officials from the US Embassy, the Malian Ministry of Transportation, local transportation union representatives, the National Statistics Institute, and local drivers,” Barclay said. “In addition, we collected data on traffic density, road width, road type, vehicle types, and choke points at various points throughout the city at various times during the day.” The students are currently compiling their findings to submit to the foundation.
Both the trip and the project were an adventure, Conyers and Barclay said, because of the immense cultural differences and the many unexpected obstacles that popped up along the way. “I loved having the chance to retool parts of our framework with the goal of helping millions of people improve the way they travel from one place to another,” Conyers said. “I highly recommend this type of experience—from the beginning of the SPI class to Mali to writing a final report—for all Georgetown students.”
Both Conyers and Barclay said that they have been grateful for the opportunity to explore a world-changing project, and that this hard work has paid off so far. “These students exemplify what we're trying to do in the SPI seminars,” said Dr. Francis Slakey, who co-directs the program and teaches the seminar. “They think outside the textbook, get outside of the classroom and help build a better world." But Slakey also said the grant took him by surprise. “Every group builds toward some final moment, and for these students that moment was actually taking their idea and pitching it to a foundation,” Slakey explained. “The intention was just to put them in front of a tough audience, but obviously they got a [more] positive result.”
--University Communications, with additional reporting by Jessica Beckman
Photos courtesy of Michael Barclay. From top: Busy streets in Bamako; Sean Quigley, Joseph Luk, and Michael Barclay; the 'Sotrama' Bus that most Malians use to get around Bamako.
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