On Urban Transport in Lagos

From the CODATU Mailing List

I have never lived in Lagos… in fact my experience in Lagos is
limited to a brief stop over at the airport. However, I study cities and my familiarity has to do with research and resources such as Google maps.

My view is that high-income world planning concepts have little or
no applicability in Lagos (or in many other developing world
cities). This is especially true of American smart growth planning,
which is much more theory than reality. There is a raging debate on
the subject in the United States and around the world, with planners
generally favoring smart growth policies and economists suggesting
that such policies are destructive because of the way that they
drive housing prices up (I am on the economist’s side of that issue).

I say that smart growth is more theory than reality, because
virtually all high income world cities developed with little overall
planning — there was local zoning, there were some local or
subregional plans and there are the exceptions like Washington (or
Brasilia, which is in the middle income world) where strong planning
regimes have been implemented in the core. But outside the core, the
development is relatively random. Smart growth seeks to impose a
design on top of that randomness and its successes tend to be, at
best, marginal. I have always been bothered at the way that some
American smart growth planners go to the developed world and tell of
the “Nirvana” that has been achieved, for example, in Portland,
which in many respects is no different than any other American urban
area, and in fact, sprawls twice as much as Los Angeles for its size.

Whatever the final outcome of the smart growth versus economics
debate, western conventional planning principles are simply
inappropriate in a place like Lagos, with its uncontrolled growth.
Attempting to manage the growth of Lagos, except in the less
intrusive way, would (in my view) lead to massive disregard of the

I recall one time being involved in a US State Department urban
planning seminar at which a planner from Manila indicated that their
first priority was to demolish the shantytowns that had grown up on
the rivers. There is a much more fundamental issue. Why do the
people live in shantytowns? Obviously because there has been
insufficient economic growth and it is thus the only choice. Where
would these people live if the shantytowns were demolished? He had
no answer, and my analysis of such situations is that the
shantytowns soon return, perhaps in different locations. Western
planning principles are simply unable to deal with such realities.

Solly Angel, who has done considerable work at the World Bank and
the United Nations suggests that urban planning in developing world
nations should be principally the identification (and later
building) a grid of major arterial streets. This is the first step
in providing the necessary infrastructure.

The transport problem virtually all large cities have (whether in
Nigeria or the West) is that they are too geographically expansive
for public transport to be an efficient, ubiquitous (door to door)
form of mobility. At the same time, with the exception of some
American urban areas, they are not geographically expansive enough
for the auto to work optimally. For all of the criticism of US urban
areas, work trip travel times here are better than anywhere else
when size of urban area is considered.

But back to ubiquitous mobility. This is not easy to provide in a
large urban area. The urban footprint of Lagos is at least 300
square km and perhaps even larger. No major urban area of that size
(or for that matter of any size) has the kind of ubiquitous public
transport system that I am referring to — one that gets you from
every point to every other point in the urban area in a time that is
competitive with personal modes (cars, taxis and motos). Manila,
which covers about 500 square km and has 17m people (don’t believe
the UN numbers, which exclude all of the spillover suburban
development outside the jurisdiction of Metro Manila) comes the
closest, with its jitney system that nearly provides ubiquitous
mobility. The problem in Manila is that the road system is so bad
that travel speeds are terrible. They could have used a “Solly
Angel” design 25 years ago. Of couse, Manila’s system (which has the
highest service level in the world, including Hong Kong) is based
upon inexpensive jeepneys, which are legal but certainly look

Regrettably, planners tend to focus on urban cores. The standard
urban transport planning regime for Lagos would be rail lines
leading to the main business centre on the island. In fact, though I
don’t have the data, my experience elsewhere would lead me to
believe that no more than 10 percent of the jobs are there and maybe
only 5 percent.

This, again, is where busways come it. To the extent that we can
improve public transport, through the most cost efficient means, we
will improve people’s lives and, delay their purchase of motos and
cars. But if we do not provide the ubiquitous public transport
systems that people need, they will buy cars and motos — that is
the experience in virtually every large urban area. Thus, it would
seem to me that low-cost busways (following the example of places
like Manaus and Porto Alegre, rather than the more expensive system
in Curitiba) would help. But, again, to make it work optimally, you
will need a grid that serves virtually everywhere and a strong
feeder service system — buses operating on ½ hour schedules will
not do. This means informal services feeding the busway. Of course,
this is theory, but I think this is the way to go.

But this takes me back to the principal issue — setting of
standards and objectives. For public transport to replace the
automobile or slow down its expansion, public transport service must
be ubiquitous. This is not so anywhere and is not even being aimed
for. But the following standards are needed (perhaps repeating
myself now).

1. Access Standard. X% of households shall be no more than Y
distance from a public transport stop (in the US, I would say 95
percent of households should be within 400 meters of a public
transport stop).

2. Service Level Standard: Service from each stop shall operate no
less than every X minutes during particular parts of the day. For
example, a reasonable standard would be service at least every 10
minutes from 5am to 10pm and every ½ hour in between.

3. Travel Time Standard: Travel times to all destinations (every
single square centimeter!) shall not exceed X minutes in a Y radius,
X1 minutes in a Y1 radius, etc. In the US, we could have a standard
that says travel times shall not exceed 20 minutes for 10 km, 30
minutes for 15, etc.

4. System Development: The standards above shall be implemented
within X years. This is a real issue. American urban areas are
rushing to build nearly random rail lines without any sort of longer
term vision (except to build, without particular reference to the
overall needs of customers). Those lines that are planned are many
years away. Contrast that with Bogota, where the busway was in
operation after just a few years and should be completed long before
a far more expensive Metro system would have been completed and
served much less of the population.

I know all of this sounds like a lot, but think of the service that
a moto or automobile provides.

1. Immediate access (not even a 400 meter walk)

2. Service available on demand (not every 5 minutes)

3. Fastest travel time to nearly all destinations.

4. It is available now… not in some transport plan that may or may
not ever be finished.