In Lagos, the traffic jams can add four hours to your commute

"Shall we get out and walk?" A traffic jam in Lagos, dating from 2008. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

In Lagos, traffic is ingrained in the city's psyche: an unavoidable stencil on daily life. Every decision you make is dominated by the question of whether the traffic makes it feasible.

That Lagos is populous and dense is widely known. Over 21m people live here (I say over, because no one really knows). But the congestion on the city’s roads is due to other factors, too – and its effects on life there now woven into its culture. 

Lagos is essentially two cities in one. It’s split between the mainland, where the vast majority live, and the island, connected to the rest by the Third Mainland Bridge, the second longest bridge in Africa. Congestion all over the city is a major issue, but that on the 12km bridge acutely demonstrates how manic and pervasive its traffic can be. On an open road the journey across the bridge takes 15 minutes. In the morning rush hour, or at any time after 4:30pm, it can take up to 4 hours.

There are no definitive statistics on exactly how many people commute to the island every day, but it’s certainly many thousands.  The commute means that, midweek, work and sleep is a seamless, never ending cycle, as the journey leaves little time for anything else. From Osodi, an industrial and market area, to Ikeja, Lagos' state capital, is 12 miles and about 40 minutes drive on a clear road. Sometimes, it can take up to eight times that long. 

The effect of all this on the city’s social and family ties are again unquantifiable, but the impact is substantial. No one wants to be far from home after 4pm. If you are, the implications are obvious: much of the city becomes a frenetic, ferocious road block.

Yellow buses, widely used and sometimes boisterous, have no separate lane either to race, or drive through. “Okadas”, motorbike transport, weave through and around the gaps and potholes and veer incomprehensibly close to the open gutters that flank most streets. The impatience of Lagos motorists gives the traffic an unhelpful volatility. 

The road quality makes matters worse. On side roads the potholes act as de facto speed bumps, only more frequent and more damaging. All this only adds to the hours stuck in traffic.


Nonetheless it is difficult to imagine it being much different. Like many problems unsolved by government, life in Lagos has simply evolved around it. Street sellers dart between cars with goods above their heads or strapped to their chests. Many rely on the “go slow”, Lagos slang for a traffic jam, in order to sell to frustrated motorists. You can buy anything from drinks and sausage rolls, to sunglasses, lightbulbs and kettles. Young boys use it to find buses with huge cargo inside, climbing onto the back to offer the owner help to take it home for a fee. 

People sell outside vehicles, but they sell inside them, too. Hopping from bus to bus, sellers pitch books and church events and all-purpose medicines, some promising to simultaneously cure headaches and premature ejaculation. The congestion turns the road into a marketplace. Selling is a feature of travelling, largely because side-selling and entrepreneurialism is so prevalent in Nigeria, but also because people stuck in barely moving cars and buses are there for the killing.

In a sense the traffic in Lagos parallels the weather in London. There is universal resignation at the state of things: people are frustrated but don't expect things to change. The difference is that the weather is beyond human control, whereas the traffic can at least theoretically be abated. The problem is, it’s so difficult to imagine it will. 

Nigeria’s population is growing rapidly, and Lagos is Africa's fastest growing city. Problematically, the number of people is outpacing the growth of infrastructure and transport links. Almost all travel is road-centric.

The train line is infrequent and poorly connected: previous governments have pledged to expand it but it is still not a viable alternative to the car. There are currently three bridges that link the mainland to the island. All are overused, and there are no plans for a fourth. A boat service is functional, but that too connects poorly to transport links on both sides of the city. 

The “go-slow” is an inescapable feature of Lagos. Many of its citizens are resigned to it, and its effects are set in stone in the way life runs here. It effectively siphons of chunks of the day, used purely to avoid or stuck in traffic.  At least it makes selling those medicines easier.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.