LAGOS may be the vertebral bone of the Nigerian economy. But, like a bone gone awry during a meal, it can get stuck in the throat. The question of how to make Lagos right for everyone was the subject of a webinar recently organised by the United States embassy.
The topic of discussion was transportation. Lagos is nothing if not its mobility. For all its residents, the story every morning is not whether to move, but how to move, who to move, who should move, who to move to, where to move, what to move, when to move. Sometimes the Lagosian would have to understand each of these options as an epicenter of all the other options.
It is weird jigsaw puzzle where if and how and when and who are equally and simultaneously important. So the resident would have little time thinking or else, the only thing that would move is a mind that is tossing around possibilities. The result is a whirligig of inaction. Much thinking, like studying, is the weariness of the flesh, apologies to Solomon. So, the Lagosian has to wake up and go.
The question is, when he goes, he stays. Sometimes in a rut. That is what we all call go-slow, a snail in perennial motion. The US picked an expert, Robin Hutcheson, to give the main talk, and Nigerians also were selected to talk, and they included a representative of the Lagos State Commissioner for transportation, Engineer Toriola, a traffic specialist Tola Odeyemi and Prof Innocent Ogwude, a former vice chancellor and also an expert.
What struck me was that the issue of transportation in Lagos was mostly addressed as transportation. But I could not but be impressed by the way each discussant displayed understanding of the technicalities of transportation. The number of cars, the inadequacy of roads, space management, budgetary bugbears, easing nodal knots, pot holes, et al. Hutcheson showed great knowledge of what we need for every city and they also apply to Lagos. Her focus on space management was on the money, except that all who move around for money think little about some of the fine points, like focusing on the bus as the target of mass transit. Other issues include sidewalks, bike lanes, trains, metro, bus, light rail, train and additional creative points to foster connectivity between buildings and facilities.
She made the great point that to move is to seek freedom for happiness, not just freedom to get around, but freedom from disruptions, from harm, freedom to connect and from exclusion. Odeyemi noted that Lagos is not like anywhere in the country as regards cars per kilometer, a point that Toriola specifies as 284 vehicles as against the national average of 11 per kilometer. She hinted that in 2017 alone, gridlocks cost the city N42 billion in productivity. She called for improved regulation in water transportation and staff should share transportation. Covid has taught us all that more people can work at and from home. She made a salient point about budgeting, that the impression is that Lagos has all the money in billions in revenue, but she insisted that even healthcare alone will gulp all its money and not even satisfy all we need in that sector. She also hinted at a behavioral factor, the major reference to culture when she adverted to the rage over right of way, the heavy duty trucks and challenges of roundabouts.
Professor Ogwude said the reason Lagos lost its reign as capital was partly because of the need to ease commuting. He called for smart traffic lights, road pricing to discourage car usage, taxing car parking, introduction of car-pooling, accelerating light rail system and more focus on water transportation, which is only one percent as yet. He added that long travel corridors like Orile to Apapa, and Apapa to Mainland can be circumvented with alternatives in ferry travels. He also observed that the work on Ibom Deep Sea port being pursued by Governor Udom Emmanuel in Akwa Ibom State and the Lekki Deep Sea Ports hold prospects for easing matters. He also called for subsidy.
Speaking for the Lagos State government, Toriola reminded all of the work in progress in major corridors in the state, including Ikorodu to CMS, which has advanced. Work is also on in Oshodi to Abule Egba as well as CMS to Okokomaiko. Referring to calls for water transportation, he documented the work by the BOS of Lagos, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu on jetties around the state. In fact, 14 boats are bobbing on water. The governor is pivoting to collaborate with the private sector. On mass transit, he spoke about procuring quality buses not only for first mile but also for last mile purposes. He spoke of shift from car to bus or mass transport as an urgent matter of policy of the government. The roundabouts are yielding to four-way stops like the case in Ikeja.
Toriola reminded all that Lagos was about the smallest state but with great population density. In spite of this, the state has been broken into zones to allow for ease of movement and control. He noted that the state was introducing technology to enforce traffic control and regulation.
The publisher of Business Day, Frank Aigbogun, set the stage for discussion because, as the organisers noted, his paper has been very fervent about transportation in the city. He told a story of a tragic incident that resulted from transportation snafu.
Clearly, Hutcheson may not have understood the geopolitics of Lagos or Nigeria. The other speakers were also speaking on the interstices of roads and the headwinds of traffic. But Lagos as a city of cities. The point could have been made that Lagos is a rescue centre, a city of refuge not only for the runaways from inefficiencies in other parts of the country but also a last mile for internal migrants. Thousands come to Lagos daily never to return. They multiply the number of those who move and the vehicles to move them. This problematizes road maintenance and space. Ultimately, it challenges budgeting. Odeyemi’s reference to inadequate money to do what is necessary hints at the development issue of the city. It is pressure on housing, on jobs, on crime control, on medical care. So the problem of transportation is a problem of development. While it is technical, it cannot be handled alone.
I would have wanted more dissection of budget and its niceties, and all the other issues gaping for funds like education and health care.
Toriola referred to the issue of attitude, and that is the cultural aspect that was not really explored. Why uproar will dog some of the suggestions, like taxation, road pricing. A cultural point is drainage tight-ends from dirty habits of the city dwellers who discard waste at will and cause floods.
And that calls for the political, and the need to reignite the call for special funding and status for Lagos. It is where the federal government ought to be grateful that Lagos has helped to keep the country from the turbulence of outrage over state failure. Just as in traffic, everyone’s car should be the other’s keeper, so it should be for a federal state. The burden should not suffocate one. To kill the one, may kill the rest. Jeremy Bentham, who led the utilitarian movement, had the right words: “Everyone counts for one; nobody for more than one.” As it is for the commuter, so it is for the federating units.
It is not an issue that should be taken slightly. The population grows daily, the pressure too. This may create a discontent that may not be Lagos’ alone to bear but the centre. If the centre cracks, the whole nation tumbles. This is hoping that the centre does not wait until it can no longer hold.
– Omatseye, a respected columnist, writes for The Nation