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.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.