Carlessness in Accra: Occupational Hazard? The Plight of the Pedestrian

“When I’m in other cities, I feel like I’m always waiting to cross a street. I can’t get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car.”– Pio Marzolini, a city official, Zurich, Switzerland

As a carless pedestrian in Accra, I can completely empathize with this statement. In a city where cars rule the road and pedestrians never have the right of way, being a pedestrian is definitely a transportation hazard.

So, what would African cities like Accra and Lagos look like if their city governments aimed at developing them for people (pedestrians, bicyclists), not for cars? Right now, European cities’ urban policy agencies are doing just that. In Barcelona and Paris, city governments are taking car lanes and converting them to bicycle lanes; in London, congestion pricing is being used to deter people from bringing cars into the city; and in Zurich, streets in the city center have been nearly or completely pedestrianized — cars are either banned on some city blocks, or speed bumps are used to slow down their speed to a crawl. The result? These European cities are not only more walkable and pedestrian friendly; they are also reducing their carbon footprints and overall environmental impacts in line from the Kyoto Protocol (US cities, with the exceptions of New York City and San Francisco, aren’t anywhere near as progressive).

It often takes extreme measures to get people out of their cars, and providing good public transportation is a crucial first step. — NY Times article “Across Europe, Irking Drivers is Urban Policy”

So, how can an African city like Accra emulate some of these progressive attitudes and policies? One of the main challenges across African cities is that non-motorized, sustainable transport has to be built on the background of public transport. In fact, one of the reasons private commuting is currently high and remains so is the dearth and quality public transport. In Accra, secondhand trotros ply the road and although highly utilized, their services are poor — it is not uncommon to see broken-down trotros at bus stops, or mates and their drivers attempting to service the vehicles to get them going again. According to some commuters and transport professionals, a major issue with trotros is that they are unregulated, and therefore not committed to servicing their vehicles on a regular basis to keep their performance high. Instead, owners seek to cut costs and maximize profits — they minimize spending (servicing) and maximize profits (running them as much as possible).

The other public transport option, buses, although better quality (and more affordable) than trotros, are in fewer supply. Operated by MMT, these large, commercial buses are in even fewer supply than trotros, and are often slow, and filled far above capacity (it’s not unusual to see dozens of people piling into MMT buses, literally filling it like packed sardines, when it comes to a stop).

That leaves only three other options for the carless among us: taxis, bicycling and walking. In a city as spread out as Accra, bicycling and walking are out of the question. The other impediment to these two non-motorized options is the fact that NMT infrastructure, such as bicycle lanes and sidewalks, aren’t integrated into the transport infrastructure across the city. As a result, driving can be the most attractive option for commuters for those who can afford it.

Small Steps
Still, there are ways that cities like Accra can emulate the progressive policies being implemented in European cities!

For example, pedestrianizing certain streets in the city centre where walking is already the major method of travel. Doing so makes these areas safer, and creates more of a public space for people to interact and enjoy the city. This could be done particularly in Osu on Oxford Street, or in Old Accra around Makola Market.

Another big (small) step is to invest in integrating non-motorized transport infrastructure into already existing streets. That makes these streets safer for people already bicycling and walking along them, and supports non-car methods of travel.

Obviously, investing and developing public transport is key. The Centre for Urban Transportation, created out of the Urban Transport Project, is dedicated to developing the city’s pilot bus-rapid transit system. The project also involves regulating and improving trotro operations in the city.