Rethinking transportation in Lagos

"Cities that fail to harness the power of innovation will eventually become the customers of those that do." — Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola

I had to make a trip to Apapa, home to Lagos' port (one of the busiest in Africa), a few weeks ago. It was a nightmare; I spent well over an hour getting to my destination. In the absence of a functioning rail system, the goods that come into and leave Apapa have to do so via trucks. Every day Apapa's broken roads are crammed with hundreds, if not thousands, of trucks, going to, or leaving, the ports.

It's the same story across the city. A combination of bad roads, too many cars (and trucks), and frequent accidents means that the city is often gridlocked. Everyone who can afford a car buys one, since what passes for public transportation is largely inhospitable — a network of tens of thousands of mini-buses known locally as danfos. In the last few years the government has introduced a bus system that takes advantage of dedicated lanes, but its capacity is a far cry from what is needed. In any case it still has to depend on the overburdened road network.

The motorcycle taxis (okadas) that once dominated and defined the metropolis, providing an opportunity for time-challenged travellers to weave through traffic jams, have recently come under the government's hammer. They are now restricted to plying side streets away from highways where they're most needed. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that the traffic situation has since got worse, following the ban, since people now have to use cars where they once rode on okadas.)

The conclusion is obvious. Lagos is in a transportation crisis. A city of close to 15 million persons, larger than London, but without a train system corresponding to what is the London Tube.

Without radical and intelligent solutions the situation is bound to worsen, as Lagos is Africa's fastest growing city, and the World Bank estimates that there will be more than 20 million people in it by 2020.

What is clear is that Lagos cannot hope to make a dent on its traffic situation without forms of mass transportation that can convey large numbers of people outside of the road network.

The solutions will lie on land — rail lines — and in the water.

A light rail system is under construction, for the first time in Lagos' history.

What continues to remain underdeveloped, in my opinion, is the water transportation system. The government says it has plans to launch a network of ferry routes and build terminals, but it requires huge investments from the private sector to embark on this.

Lagos is a city that cannot be understood outside of its aquatic context. A fifth of the city is occupied by water. It sits on the Atlantic, and at its heart lies a lagoon. It is criss-crossed by a network of canals, creeks and wetlands. A properly developed water transportation system will take a lot of pressure from the roads. I had first-hand experience of the immense possibilities last week.

I had to return to Apapa a week after my initial trip, and decided, after that initial experience, that there was no way I was going to drive. And so I decided to go by ferry — a service that runs from the Marina across the lagoon, to a jetty that sits at the edge of a flour mill in Apapa.

The journey took only fifteen minutes, from the Marina, to Apapa. (And it was a pretty slow-moving ferry, so cutting journey times shouldn't be a great challenge).

What surprised me, however, was how under-utilized the ferry service is. You'd have expected to see a fleet of boats departing and arriving by the minute. No. There was only one boat, which was not filled to capacity on any of the legs of my trip.

It'd be interesting to know why the service is not more popular. Of course one challenge is gaining easy access to the Marina jetty in the first place. As far as I could see it had no parking facility. I had to park my car at a mall some distance away, and board a tricycle to the Marina. At the Apapa end, because of the traffic, and absence of okadas, it was a very long walk to my destination. In a city that doesn't place a premium on sidewalks.

On the whole no single solution will redeem Lagos. It'll have to be a combination of innovative approaches, all connected to one another, synthesizing into an efficient whole.

The mass transport systems Lagos requires will have to combine affordability (in a city where up to seventy percent of the population ekes out a living in the informal economy) with levels of comfort that can attract the car-obsessed middle-class.


Interesting! I never knew that Lagos had such urban transport problems now. It was backward-looking 10 years ago the last time I visited working for

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

The transportation challenges have become a focal point of discussions in Lagos. The situation is of course excacerbated by rural urban migrations and the exploding Lagos population and bourgeoing middle class.

Various angles have been taken to solve the problems, traffic routing radio stations, traffic monitors, the BRT system and ongoing rail and cable car projects. However, as mentioned there are more natural avenues I.water transport, that can be explored and it is surprising it is not being engaged.

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