Could Uber be the thing that kills Lagos's half official bus network?

Supporters of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari celebrate their victory on top of a Lagos bus. Image: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images.

In Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, entrepreneurialism is everything. The city’s proud regard of hustle centres on its commerce and its emerging tech centre: more than anything else, the city is a bustling marketplace.

But its buses, too, can make a good snapshot of life in Lagos.

The vehicles used by the bus rapid transit network, Lagos BRT – big, blue and in a lane of their own – are pretty conventional. They connect up a key 22km stretch of the mainland, and, bar moments when daring drivers cut down their lane in frustration, are relatively unaffected by the city’s unbearable congestion. The network is regulated by the state government; the prices are fixed; and the service is, at least when the Lagos traffic is taken into account, bearable.

 Their smaller, yellow counterparts, the minibuses and the larger molue – commercially-run, semi-official and only loosely regulated – are more interesting beasts. There are no statistics available on exactly how many of Lagos’ 10m inhabitants brave them every day, but a decent guestimate would be “a lot”. They travel via the main roads and through inner streets, where the road surface is often severely damaged by pot-holes, making riding them more of an excursion. 

The X68 from Croydon to Euston has its moments, but pales by comparison to this. The buses, like all Lagos motorists, navigate the potholes and aggressive traffic with the gusto of a pubescent rhino. The drive sometimes takes you perilously close to the edge of the open gutters that line most streets, but they seldom give in to them. 

The system’s lack of regulation is a concern, but a mild one. The seats are broken and tough, and the engines make noises that should prompt a concern that it rarely does. But it is not as dysfunctional a system as it can appear.

The bus conductors are usually young – a symptom of high youth unemployment – and bellow the names of destinations as they pass. The closest thing to a workable bus map available, they are an expert guide on where you need to go, when they're in the mood. The drivers never wait, but slow down just enough for people to hop on before taking off again. The impatience is a hallmark of the city.

The required entrepreneurialism comes into play when settling the fare. It's at least 50 Naira more expensive in traffic, or if the demand is high – or if the bus conductor is chancing his luck after an unrewarding day. Most Lagosians accept that the rules on setting fares are loose ones.

The weekly grapple for these ever changing far revenues could have made Uber's expansion into Nigeria last year a seamless one: in many ways the company offers a better version of what already exists. The firm has since announced a 25 per cent reduction in its prices, making its taxis more accessible to the average Nigerian, and targeting a huge market of battle-ready commuters. 

So will the yellow bus industry be worried? Uber's model is a systemised version of their own: the taxi firm’s price flexibility, a unique feature of the service in established markets like London, is practically built-in in Lagos. But those buses, however tumultuous, are still braved by most in the city; they’ll rock on for a while yet.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.