Safe public transport can support climate action and public health….Here’s how both governments and citizens can play a role

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Olasumbo Olaniyi, UrbanBetter Disruptor and Cityzen, is an environmental advocate on a mission. She says:

“My journey as an environmental advocate took a radical turn when I began to work with the team at UrbanBetter. It made me more sensitive to my environment and overall health. While many people have joked about some of my recent actions, I have seen a need to take things more seriously. I would say it this way, “If you love yourself, your neighbour and your environment, you would not consider doing anything grossly detrimental“.

A recent experience while using public transport triggered her to reflect on how and why public transport matters for health and air pollution action.

In this blog, Olasumbo shares this reflection with a call to observe and act!

On this fateful day, I stepped out to visit friends around the Aguda area of Surulere, Lagos State. I had concluded the day’s meeting and decided to return home. “Bode Thomas!”, I yelled from the other side of the street to any Korope I saw drive by at about 5 in the evening. We had been waiting for a while and the gridlock at the petrol station made accessing public transport more difficult. At last, a mini-bus appears from nowhere shouting “Oya, where?” The bus was not in the best of shape, to be honest. But all waiting passengers echoed their destinations in unison while struggling to board the bus as he kept driving. At that point, I should have realised that something was off, but the thought of wanting to get home before dusk overwhelmed my mind. “200 ni Bode Thomas, 250 ni Shoprite”, shouted the driver, announcing the fares for different routes with a cracked husky voice from his seat. Passengers yelled at him, complaining about the price which was higher than the standard. While arguing about the bus fare, I noticed his driving was rough. Within a short distance, he ran into potholes and over speed bumps, and carelessly overtook cars at the traffic light. “Why is he driving like this?”, I thought to myself. Though I was seated at the back, I peered repeatedly to see what necessitated his actions. “Oh wow”, I uttered in my mind… This driver had a cigarette in his left hand and was controlling the steering wheel with his other hand. Upon discovering this, it was like an alarm was set off in my head saying, ” Alight, alight, alight now!”. On second thought, I recalled that I had engaged some public transport drivers in conversations on numerous occasions. This act of his negatively affects him, other people and the environment, why not speak to him?, I thought to myself. Sadly, that was an abortive mission as he was in a state where he could hardly comprehend anything. Albeit, I chose to sit at the edge of my seat, alert – watching for myself and other passengers and waiting eagerly to get off such a death trap…

Photo: A Korope mini-bus as a petrol station 

The above narrative captures my experience of the yellow and black mini-bus popularly known as “Korope” which highlights multiple issues of air pollution, public transportation and detrimental human activities in Lagos state. This triggered several thoughts which may develop into further questions and/or answers:

Is public transport safe? Is this what commuters go through daily? How are the personnel recruited and is there a comprehensive induction process that includes a code and conduct? How and to whom can complaints be submitted? What is the easiest or simplest way to educate the identified key players? How are guiding policies for public transportation enforced? Is there a preferential divide that exempts public transport and focuses more on private?

Every sector of an economy contributes in varying degrees to the environmental state of the country for now and in the future. Transportation and manufacturing are industries noted to release the highest levels of pollutants such as CO, NO2 and particulate matter 2.5.

Foremost, the public transportation system is the most prominent system within a city because almost all other systems such as education, agriculture, sanitation and finance rely on its efficiency and effectiveness. That is, the inefficiency and safety or security of the system can have heterogeneous ripple effects. 

More specifically, for a fast-urbanising city like Lagos with an estimated 17.9 million people and counting, diversifying mobility options can have major benefits like:

  • Promoting active travel

More people in Africa walk than utilise any other modes of transportation – roughly 78% of the population. Despite this, its cities remain car-congested. The Lagos Non-Motorised Transport Policy’s recommendation on increasing motorisation by providing electric cars and the like as highlighted by the UN Report on “Walking and Cycling in Africa” discourages physical activity and is harmful to vulnerable road users.

Active travel has many potential benefits including health, environmental and economic. Thus, encouraging greener mobility options such as walking or cycling alongside shared mobility options according to recent studies will not only improve overall physical health (walking for 30 minutes or cycling for 20 minutes on most days reduces mortality risk by at least 10%) but will also reduce congestion and black carbon and other co-pollutant emissions associated with using automobiles. 

Furthermore, public transport systems in Lagos can be designed to encourage physical activity. Case in point, 

  1. In the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, 20 squats get you a free bus ride.
  2. In Mexico City, 10 squats get you a free travel ticket.
  3. In the UK, Hillingdon Hospital Green Travel Incentive collects points for staff members when they switch from driving individual cars to using foot or bicycle. On accumulating 20 points, gifts are given in exchange.

  • Reducing pollution by reducing traffic congestion

In Lagos state, road-based transport is the predominant means of transportation. The available road infrastructure is greatly overstretched and most commercial vehicles are between 10-15 years old with emission factors close to the Euro 2 Standards, which is 3 to 4 times higher than European values. As a result, soot and other hazardous substances are released into the environment.

Nonetheless, vehicle stock has nearly quadrupled in the last ten years. According to Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA), in 2015, public transportation accounted for approximately 50% of passenger traffic per day, which included Bus Rapid Transit, regulated bus (LAGBUS), Semi-formal mini-buses (Danfos; constituting about 45%), Federal Mass Transit Trains, Water transport system and other non-data modes (including, motorcycle (now banned in many areas), tricycle, bicycle, taxis, articulated vehicles, mini-vans and boats). 

With that, commuters in both formal and informal sectors lose roughly 75% of their weekly working hours (approximately 30 out of 40 hours) to traffic, leading to a sedentary lifestyle for the vast majority. However, current research suggests that access to public transportation (measured by the percentage of the population within 500 metres of public transport) within Lagos now sits at 38% – a little above the 32% African average.

A car can transport up to five persons in one trip, a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can transport between 130 to 150 people at once while a train can transport an average of 1000 persons per trip. For a minute, imagine the unending and easier mobility possibilities Lagos state will be able to offer. With investments and holistic monitoring schemes from the state and private-public partners working towards achieving sustainability, Lagos will harness its ability to convey en-masse. Consequently, dropping the demand for road infrastructure, individual car ownership, air and noise pollution, commuting time and cost, and promoting inclusivity for residents simultaneously increasing economic returns for the government. 

  • Providing safety for riders and pedestrians:

According to the World Health Organization (2022), “93% of the world’s fatalities on the roads occur in low- and middle-income countries, even though these countries have approximately 60% of the world’s vehicles”. Despite having the world’s lowest level of motorisation – roughly one car for every 250 people – Africa has the highest estimated road traffic fatality rate of 26.6 per 100,000 population. These may be owing to poor driving safety, driver habits, speeding, insufficient traffic law enforcement, and a lack of infrastructure to support alternative transportation modes such as walking and cycling.

Despite the fact that the state has a Driver’s Institute that trains drivers, the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) recorded 6,648 road accidents in 2018, 14.8% of which were fatal, 43.1% severe, and 42.1% minor. It should also be noted that there were 5,532 casualties. By 2019, LASTMA had recorded 5,571 road accidents (which is an improvement from the previous year), 2% of which were fatal, 59.8% severe and 38% minor. However, 6192 casualties were recorded – an increase of 660 from the previous year. 

Recent health studies revealed that taking the bus is safer than driving a car and that the risk of injury is four times higher for drivers than passengers. Also, in high-traffic areas, pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicle occupants are more likely to be injured. With over 5 million cars owned by Lagosians and almost 1.6 million vehicles plying Lagos roads daily, the safety and efficiency of public transportation for users, drivers and non-users cannot be overlooked. It will have immediate and far-reaching effects.

With that being said, I would like to recommend the following to the relevant private-public stakeholders and agencies such as LAMATA, Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA), Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Parks Management Committee and Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) and then, to my fellow Lagosians.

Relevant organisations

  • Complete, first, the Bus Reform Initiative (BRI) (scheduled for implementation between 2019 and 2021), which aims to replace old yellow commercial buses (popularly known as Danfo) in order to create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also increasing transport infrastructure across Lagos. Second, expedite the integration of the Lagos Mass Transit Scheme or Lagos Strategic Transportation Master Plan (STMP) (rail, road, water, air and non-motorised transport (NMT)). Notable is the recently announced pilot project for electric buses in the state – to take into account the state’s specific route terrain, significantly cut carbon emissions, and enhance efficiency. Initiatives like these will help to build an adaptive and resilient transportation network, increase passenger safety, and reduce the likelihood of accidents, injury, or disease, all while improving Lagos’ overall air quality.
  • Referring to the UN-Habitat’s Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), rehabilitate existing road infrastructure, develop home-grown guidelines and construct new facilities to include optimal space for pedestrians and cyclists, road safety features, post-crash aid etc. Citizen-centred, gender-sensitive or environmentally friendly approaches can enable meaningful reform in urban transport planning policies.
  • Develop policies and provide incentives (or subsidised rates) that encourage residents to walk, cycle or use public transport through building the necessary infrastructure to ensure walking, cycling and public transport is safe, healthy and inclusive.
  • Support research and collaborative capacity development. Understanding the existing service and rethinking mobility in the state is now a priority. This will generate contextual physical planning and mobility options. Thus, bridging the gap within connected ministries and between the academic- and wider-society. 
  • As it is widely known, maintaining public transport systems is an expensive venture. Thus, diversifying the transportation system by partnering and incorporating corporate, international and youthful actors creates a framework for improving the longevity and sustainability of the system.
  • Review existing standards and regulations for appointing, monitoring and evaluating public transport personnel. In addition, facilitate for members of major associations such as the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and Joint Drivers Welfare Association of Nigeria (JIDWAN) by ward or area council, mandatory, systematic and incentivised training on safety measures, soft skills and practices that ensure Lagos meets and sustains its climate action goals.

Fellow Lagosians

  • Positive change in our attitude hinges largely on information. Thus, informed citizens should drive campaigns to motivate the use of public transport and educate others on harmful practices and possible ways to mitigate or manage risk across several scenarios. For example, Cityzens for Clean Air Campaign, The BreatheLife Campaign etc.
  • Ensure to adhere to existing state rules and regulations when driving, employing drivers to support commercial transportation or using public transport.
  • Through funding and financing, collaborate with state government and relevant public-private partners to improve the public transport stock, employ qualified personnel and champion mass physical activity like the Access Bank Marathon or ARM Run For Life.
  • Finally, motor vehicle owners should regularly service and upgrade necessary parts to the latest emission technologies to reduce pollution, illnesses and the risk of accidents.

While I realise that the solutions proposed are critical to ensuring transport safety and security, I recognize that they could also form part of a comprehensive intervention strategy for urban mobility agendas to promote safer public transportation. This will enable healthy behaviour like physical activity while addressing climate change issues.

Olasumbo Olaniyi, is an #UrbanBetter Disruptor and Cityzens4CleanAir Run Leader. An architect activist, she was featured in a BBC News Africa piece about air pollution advocacy in Lagos. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to learn more about how she’s making the Urban Better

Read more about work by other #UrbanBetter Disruptors.

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