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.

 
 
 
 

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