Through our work in Sub-Saharan Africa, we have identified key trends and dynamics affecting the viability and effectiveness of sustainable urban transport systems in various African cities. These cities include the major and emerging centres of Accra (Ghana), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Cape Town (South Africa), Dakar (Senegal), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Lagos (Nigeria). This is a two-part themed post which discusses issues affecting urban transport systems.

Accessing the city

Cities in Africa are growing faster than on any other continent.  According to the World Bank, urban areas were home to 36% of the African population in 2010, and it is expected that half of the African populace will reside in cities by 2030.  Individuals and families gravitate towards cities seeking opportunities for socio-economic inclusion, an escape from the perceived “global periphery”.
Yet cities have their own peripheries where marginalisation and exclusion are exacerbated by a lack of access to opportunities such as employment, education and services.  Uncontrolled urban sprawl and poor transport systems limit urban access by creating long distances between origins and destinations which are difficult to cover using the existing systems.  The problem is pervasive; those at the margins remain marginalised and even the relatively well-off are limited by the inefficiencies of intolerable congestion, unpredictable travel times, and environmental degradation.
Three issues relating to city accessibility are particularly salient in the urban African context and need to be recognised in order to create appropriate transport solutions.

Effectively managing land use for sustainable transport

Congestion in Lagos (Source: The Atlantic, 2012)

The first challenge facing African cities is uncontrolled land use and the resulting urban sprawl.  This negatively affects transport systems because low densities and long travel distances incentivise the use of private vehicles and reduce the viability of public and non-motorised transport.  Mixed land use (combining residential, recreational and commercial opportunities), on the other hand, facilitates accessibility and creates an efficient city in terms of both time and money.
As it stands, however, many African cities have developed from small colonial bases into large, sprawling cities.  For example, the original centre of Accra is small and walkable, with markets, schools, government offices and numerous services concentrated in the inner ring.  As the city has grown and the space has become saturated, families and communities have moved outwards, away from the coast, creating residences in peri-urban areas where larger plots for extended families are affordable.  “Villages” which were once considered outside the bounds of Accra have now been fully incorporated into the sprawling city.  The outcome is low density corridors with long travel distances between origins and destinations.  Hence walking is often unfeasible, and commutes by motorised transport are increasingly time-consuming and expensive.
Some cities are still relatively walkable, such as Addis Ababa, a city that is relatively self-contained with multi-polar, mixed-use neighbourhoods. According to the national Ministry of Transport (FDRE), the average trip distance is only 3.3km, while pedestrian trips are, on average, about 1.5km and account for more than half of daily trips.  Most people walk as they simply cannot afford an alternative, and do so despite safety risks and hilly topography. Moreover, due to rapid economic growth, the city has also sprawled over time and the ability to conveniently get around on foot is being further compromised.

Urban sprawl in Dar es Salaam (Source: ZME Science, 2017)

Dar es Salaam, on the other hand, while dense, is experiencing high population growth at its periphery.  In fact, due to uncontrolled urban development, 80% of land use is now classified as “informal”.  The distinct separation of the dominant urban core from the residential urban periphery forces residents to spend time and money on long commutes.  To achieve a sustainable urban transport system, it requires proper integrated management of transport and mixed land use.

Paratransit services perform a key role both now and in the future

A second feature of the urban African transport picture is the vast private transport system (known as paratransit) supplementing the minimal formal public transport services across the continent.  This industry varies from the ubiquitous minibus taxi, to motorcycle transport (Kampala), three-wheeled rickshaws (Dar es Salaam), and water ferries (Lagos). These services are demand-driven, often poorly regulated and do not work to a schedule, making them difficult to use outside of peak travelling hours.
They are also often unsafe due to, amongst other factors, poor vehicle quality, reckless driving, and a lack of regulatory enforcement.  They can also be relatively expensive, as they typically do not benefit from state subsidy.  Regulation of the industry varies significantly, from government licencing with route supply-demand alignment and vehicle safety/roadworthiness enforcement (e.g. many South African cities), to price setting (e.g. Accra), to no regulatory oversight at all (e.g. Lagos’ water taxis).

Paratransit in Addis Ababa

As the primary provider of public transport, the paratransit industry has a large captive market, and should be a key stakeholder in any efforts to improve urban transport systems. The industry supports many livelihoods and creates cluster industries such as informal vendors at taxi ranks.  Within the industry, there is also valuable knowledge on the transport needs of the populace. The paratransit industry also plays an important role in economic access and empowerment, providing a relatively easy entry point for small businesses to enter the formal economy. As such, the industry is often highly entrepreneurial and broad-based in its business structures.

Water taxis in Lagos (Source: Deutsche Welle, 2016)

In many cities, authorities favour the rollout of formal, bus rapid transit (BRT)-style systems as a replacement of existing paratransit services.  The extent of plans to incorporate the paratransit industry into these new systems and services varies from city to city.  Regardless, developing a formal public transport network is likely to take decades and the paratransit industry will necessarily continue to operate in parallel.
Mechanisms to incorporate the paratransit industry into the public transport system should be inclusive in nature and take into account the value that the paratransit industry adds. Some developing cities, like Accra and Cape Town, have learnt important lessons in this regard and have begun to explore alternative approaches to the removal and replacement of the existing industry.

Non-Motorised Transport is inexpensive and effective, but faces cultural challenges

Finally, walking and cycling, also known as Non-Motorised Transport (NMT), are usually the most widely-used means of getting around in African cities.  They are also the most affordable and environmentally-friendly modes of transport available.  In fact, there is a correlation between low income and reduced reliance on motorised travel.

When people do choose to walk they are often faced with more challenges.  For example, pedestrian pavements, traffic islands and transport terminals are often appropriated as sites of business for informal traders. Pedestrians are forced to walk in the street as motorcyclists use pedestrian pavements to dodge congested traffic. In addition to insufficient pedestrian pavement space, polluted and open storm-water drains, as well as poor street lighting, create health and safety hazards for pedestrians.

Vendors, tro-tros (minibuses) and pedestrians all make use of crowded roadsides in Accra

Poorly maintained NMT infrastructure in Addis Ababa

NMT does, however, hold significant potential to be a mode of choice for many people in these cities, as is demonstrated by international exemplar cities.  However, in many sub-Saharan African cities an expanding market for private vehicles is being fuelled by the combination of population and economic growth, the undesirability of public and non-motorised transport alternatives, the high status associated with car ownership, and the previously discussed land-use dynamics. Achieving a shift to NMT requires decision-makers to recognise it as an important mode equal in status to private cars, trains and buses, now and into the future, and significant investment in aligned infrastructure and support programmes.
While African cities have their own contextual transport challenges, key themes emerge which need to be considered when attempting to design effective solutions.  The specific nature of these challenges means that simply looking to international solutions has limited scope.  In the next post, we look at issues around effective transport institutions and financing.
Dr. Constantin von der Heyden leads the Transport practice, and Matthew Moody and Helen Morrissey are consultants in the Transport practice.