Rethinking Africa’s transport needs

The city of Lagos has recently banned motorcycles. Locally known as “okadas”, the authorities accuse these vehicles of causing “chaos and disorderliness” and fatal accidents within the congested city roads.

In the absence of effective and affordable alternatives, the public response has been overwhelmingly negative. There are long queues at bus stations and ride-hailing services, popular with young commuters, are facing bankruptcy.

Lagosians are questioning the lack of investments in railways. They are also frustrated with the public bus service, which for long has been associated with inefficiency, delays and corruption.

Lagos is not alone. With rapid urbanisation taking place all over the continent, addressing public transportation needs ought to be a top priority for policymakers. Several studies suggest that by 2030, almost half of the continent’s population will reside in cities.

Sadly, large-bus and railway services are often non-existent, causing enormous hardship to millions of people. Many urban and rural dwellers experience long, uncomfortable and expensive commutes. Private minibus operators rule the market and their operations are not strictly regulated.

Some countries are embarking on ambitious projects to improve transport infrastructure; many of these are being undertaken with Chinese assistance, such as the Madaraka express in Kenya that connects Nairobi to Mombasa by rail. Governments are also building bigger and better roads that offer rural areas quicker access to urban centres. But the demand is far outstripping supply.

There is now considerable available evidence on why large-bus services have not been successful in Africa. The likelihood of using buses decreases with vehicle ownership and employment status. Owners complain that the business is not profitable.

When tickets are expensive, demand is low. When buses do not arrive on time, people search for other alternatives. Procuring buses from the international market requires considerable upfront capital costs. Moreover, many governments have simply not been able to afford expensive subsidies aimed at covering fuel, personnel and maintenance costs. Enforcing strict rules for fare evasion has also been difficult.

One way forward could be to acquire relatively cheap electric buses. Chile’s capital Santiago has done just that—from China. Electric buses, of course, require electricity, which is in short supply in many parts of Africa. But they are environment-friendly and may even prove to be less expensive to operate than those that rely on fossil fuels.

The authorities could begin with short urban routes with dedicated battery charging stations and gradually expand to rural areas. Smartphone apps could be used to purchase tickets and thus reduce fare evasion. Rwanda is actively promoting the use of electric vehicles, including e-bikes.

Even if a city decides not to go the electric route, rethinking transport needs ought to figure prominently in policymaking circles.

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