In Accra, as in many major African cities, traffic congestion has become a familiar source of frustration and a clear symptom for the need for transportation improvements. The trajectory of Accra’s urban transport challenge exemplifies the trends in other African commercial capitals. The city has grown at a rapid pace, and such growth is expected to continue (from about 1.7 million in 2000 to a predicted 4 million by 2020). The lack of land use controls within the city and its peri-urban areas have allowed extensive urban sprawl, demonstrated by low-density residential and commercial development. As Accra has expanded, travel distances for its residents have increased, and it has become more and more difficult for city government to adequately fund an already underfunded city bus system. Bus services failed to keep pace with urban growth and expansion, and transport prices increased, disproportionately burdening the poor.
One result of this situation has been the development of the private minibus system, operated on an informal basis and as an indigenous response to the public’s transport challenges. These tro-tros as they are called in Accra (or matatusin Nairobi, danfos in Lagos, and gbaka in Abidjan) are small buses that can transport anywhere from 8 to 25 passengers at a time. In a city like Accra where an estimated 70 percent of the public rides tro-tro in their travel to work and shopping, the importance of this transport mode cannot be overstated . At the same time, this mode comes with its own downsides: because the minibuses are almost always secondhand imports as old as eight years by the time they hit an African road, the vehicle’s reliability is in question and its contribution to environmental emissions and air pollution can be significant.
Another result of Accra’s (and other major African cities) transport challenges has been the rise of private automobile ownership. To avoid the unreliability of public transport and the discomfort of informal transport, more and more people are opting to drive their own cars. However, more and more individual cars taking to the limited road space has clogged roads, leading to massive traffic congestion, particularly during peak times. In Accra, workers can spend three to four hours (per day) in traffic as part of their commute; in a megacity like Lagos, which has at least 20 million people, the experience is much more debilitating.
This traffic congestion creates a situation where we all lose: spending more time in traffic means spending less time being productive and doing the things we love. So the question now becomes how to move forward and how to promote transportation that is sustainable, responsive to public demand and friendly to the environment. In particular, given the disproportionate affect of climate change on Africa, African governments must begin to look seriously into ways to reduce their contribution to global emissions. One key solution is (re)invigorating the use of large-sized buses for public transport. Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT) is one option: it is a road-based bus system that provides fast and cost-effective transport by providing a dedicated road lane for buses, segregating the bus from other vehicular traffic, and bypassing congestion. The city of Accra can look forward to the development of a pilot BRT system in the next year or two, which has the potential to greatly reduce congestion, air pollution and travel times within the city.
Accra is following in the footsteps of other African cities, including Lagos, which established its own “light” version of the BRT in 2008 and now plans to expand it further, and Johannesburg, which opened the first full BRT system in Africa in 2009. A key to the BRT system will be linking it with existing transport operations, particularly local minibus operations, whose routes can be maintained to “feed into” major BRT routes (although this is much easier said than done). Minibus operations themselves must also be improved through regulations and increased operating standards.
In addition to the development of improved bus services, what I would like to see is improved infrastructure for bicycling (bicycle lanes) and walking (sidewalks) in African cities like Accra. The unfortunate lack of bike lanes means cyclists must use the road and compete with cars, buses and trucks. Most feasible for shorter-distance commutes, biking and walking are the most environmentally and economically efficient forms of transport. Promoting these forms of non-motorized transport for short-distance trips can promote reduced road congestion as well as reduced environmental emissions and pollution. On top of that, it provides a healthy and convenient form of exercise.
Creating a multi-modal, sustainable transport system (that appreciates the role of public transport and bicycling and walking) in African cities is a complex process that involves numerous considerations, stakeholders, and most of all, government support and initiative. But developing one can be a major step toward improving the health, wellbeing, and overall quality of life for residents. Because when we get can get to where we want to go efficiently, affordably and safely, everyone wins.
R. Grant and P. Yankson (2003), “City Profile: Accra,” Cities, Vol. 20, No.1, p. 65-74.
World Bank (2010), City of Accra, Ghana: Consultative Citizen’s Report Card, p. 105.