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.

 
 
 
 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.