LAGOS, Nigeria – A giant billboard towers over a stretch of road in central Lagos, offering a tantalizing vision of the future: a sleek, modern station from which Lagosians will be whisked efficiently around the city on a light rail transit line.
But beyond the billboard is the current reality of traffic in one of the world’s fastest-growing cities: a bumper-to-bumper crawl of cars, trucks, and rickety minibus taxis known as “danfos.” The dusty construction site for the new transit line is a jumble of motorbikes, hawkers and pedestrians who ignore warning signs and weave through the concrete foundation pillars.
Translating the vision into reality will be no easy feat. But the Canadian company that is handling the logistics of the innovative project is convinced that Lagos’s groundbreaking foray into urban light rail transit will become a model for booming African cities of the future.
Rail lines like the one being built in Lagos can help boost productivity, economic development and quality of life in a rapidly urbanizing Africa, said Peter Kieran, president of CPCS Transcom Ltd.
The light rail line will be one of the first in sub-Saharan Africa, and will have “demonstration impact” for other African cities, he said. “They’ll say, ‘we can do this as well. We can have this too.’”
The United Nations estimates that the number of Africans living in cities will triple over the next four decades. Lagos is set to overtake Cairo as Africa’s most populous city by 2015, with a projected population of 12.4 million people. While Lagos’s current population is 10 million, unofficially it is said to already host to as many as 18 million people.
“It’s the same thing that happened in North America: once people have seen the bright lights of the big city, they don’t want to go back,” Kieran said.
The rapid expansion of Africa’s cities has caused chaos because of the lack of infrastructure to handle the exploding populations. Commuters in Lagos, the business capital of Nigeria, currently spend up to three hours each way commuting between home and work, many of them packed into inconvenient, stiflingly hot 15-seater “danfos” that are nicknamed “flying coffins.”
Those with private cars can spend an hour driving a stretch of road to a destination that is within eyesight.
Other African cities such as Nairobi, Kampala and Luanda are similarly ill-designed for the high volume of car traffic that has come with an expanding African middle class, and they desperately need modern public transit systems.
“There are cities in Africa that have over a million people but don’t have a single traffic light,” Kieran said. “Traffic is extremely undisciplined.”
The first phase of Lagos’s rail transit line, scheduled to start operating in 2013, will be 17 miles long and have 13 stations from Okokomaiko to Marina, with trains running every five minutes at peak times. Eventually there will be seven lines running through the city, but it is not clear when the whole project will be completed.
The project has been undertaken by the Lagos Metropolitan Transit Authority (known as LAMATA), under the stewardship of Lagos governor Babatunde Fashola, who has also been trying to “green” a notoriously grimy Lagos by adding parks and public landscaping.
“We are dreaming of a new and beautiful Lagos, which would be a reference point for best practices that you can find anywhere in the world,” Fashola said in a speech.
Lagos already has a bus rapid transit system, but a rail line will help solve the problem of the city’s congested roads. According to LAMATA, Lagos is the only city of its population size in the world without a rail mass transit system, and 1.6 million passengers a day will ride on the first two lines, according to estimates.
The $1.2 billion first phase is being built by the Beijing-based China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, a firm with broad experience in Africa and Asia, using Chinese experts and locally hired workers.
One of the most complicated parts of constructing a mass transit system in built-up Lagos has been dealing with the relocation of residents from areas along the tract of land that will host the rail line and an expanded freeway.
Bunmi Folayan, principal consultant with CPCS Transcom Ltd., drives through the sprawling slum around the construction site and points out buildings that have been partially torn down — in some cases, sections crudely hacked off and then walls re-sealed — to make way for the new thoroughfare.
Construction of the second rail line, which has stalled, will require much more land acquisition — a slow process.
There are other issues ahead, including the financing of the other lines and the long-term challenges of maintenance and keeping service levels high. Lagos’s rail system will be operated and maintained by a private Nigerian company, Eko Rail, with a price cap on fares worked into the agreement.
In Africa, the public sector often falls down in maintaining infrastructure, so a private concessionaire is needed to bring efficiency to big government projects, Kieran said.
“You have to keep equipment running, and it’s something that civil servants are not very strong at,” Kieran said. “I think this is the model for every city.”