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.