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.

 
 
 
 

So what was actually in Grant Shapps’ latest transport masterplan?

A tram in Manchester. Image: Getty.

Poor Grant Shapps. This weekend, the UK’s transport secretary unveiled a fairly extensive package of measures intended to make sure Britons can keep moving about during the Covid-19 crisis. On Saturday, he fronted the government’s daily afternoon press briefing; on Sunday, he did the rounds of the morning political shows. 

And were those nasty mean journalists interested in his plans for bicycle repair vouchers, or the doubling of the A66? No they were not: all they wanted to ask about was reports that the Prime Minister’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings had breached the lockdown he himself had helped draw up. The rotten lot.

This is, from some perspectives a shame, because some of the plans aren’t bad. Here’s a quick run down. 

  • The government is releasing a total of £283m to increase frequencies on bus (£254m) and light rail (£29m) networks, enabling more people to travel while maintaining social distancing. 

  • It’s deploying 3,400 people – British Transport Police officers; staff from train operators and Network Rail – to stations, to advise passengers on how to travel safely.

  • It’s promising to amend planning laws to enable councils to reallocate road space and create emergency cycle lanes, using a £225m pot of funding announced earlier this month. 

  • It’s also spending £25m on half a million £50 bike repair vouchers, and £2.5m on adding 1,180 bike parking spaces at 30 railway stations.

All this sounds lovely, but announcements of this sort tend to throw up a few questions, and this is no exception. The UK is home to over 2,500 railway stations, which must raise doubts about whether a few extra bike parking spaces at 30 of them is going to be enough to spark a cycling revolution. And councillors say that £225m for new cycle lanes has been slow to materialise in council bank accounts.

As to the money for public transport: that £29m will be shared between tram networks in five English conurbations (Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Tyne & Wear, Nottingham, Sheffield). Just under £6m each doesn’t sound like the big bucks.

Then there’s the fact that all of these pots of money are dwarfed by the £1bn the government is planning to spend on turning the A66 Transpennine route across the north of England, from Workington to Middlesbrough, into a dual carriageway. Which puts the money allocated to cycling into perspective.

That said, it is refreshing to see the government taking an interest in cycling at all. Also, Grant Shapps genuinely tried to distract the nation from a huge political scandal by talking about bike repair vouchers, and you’ve got to give him credit for that.

More details of the plan on gov.uk here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.