Okadas Are Not Your Problem, Your Classism Is

A man uses bike-hailing service O-Ride to get to his destination. Photo: askifa.ng

The first thing I noticed when I encountered Lagos for the first time was the crude public transport system. You cannot go anywhere farther than 100 metres without entering the infamous yellow, black-striped buses synonymous with discomfort and which feature in many stories emanating from the city.

In Nigeria, most lower-middle and lower-income groups depend on affordable public transport services to reach their destinations, and despite concerns about global warming, owning a car is still looked upon a major achievement because of the convenience and straightforwardness of it (often mistaken to be luxury). Then, there are the alternative means of transportation, the motorcycles and motorised tricycles popularly called Okada and Keke, to access places that are far off from bus stops but which normal buses don’t often ply.

In the major cities, like Lagos, the demand for public transport far outstrips the supply. And when buses or the BRTs are not available, in addition to plying additional routes, these okadas and kekes which are able to beat traffic and manoeuvre small spaces than cars and buses are considered the favourable option.

In cities like Abuja, you almost never need to enter an okada, there is minimal traffic and kekes are more convenient and accessible. For a 30 minute trip, you may never need to enter a bus, taxis ply many routes with four people seated at the back and one or two people in front depending on where you are.

The public transport system of a city or region is influenced by certain factors and needs such as the population of the city, the level of development or urbanisation, the city design, travel patterns, income of inhabitants, and land use. Factors like how many people are involved in a trip, how long the journey takes and its purpose determine travel means for the users of these systems. Usually, the available options of public transport for a city or region should match the development level and travel pattern of the city. More advanced and empathetic governments take this into consideration while also exploring what the possibilities are for cities of the future.

However, the recent ban on okadas and kekes in Lagos state in certain local governments shows lack of thought for any of these, especially considering that it is a megacity with an estimated population of 21 million as of 2016, with over 5 million cars.

The problem stated is not unfounded: drivers of motorbikes are often a menace, driving against traffic at a whim and on very major highways, and kekes sometimes weave in and out of traffic without any care for oncoming traffic. Danfos, the popular bus system which operates without any timing are even worse: drivers of these vehicles exhibit plain disregard for rules wherever they can get away with it. Was it not the other day that a car user was seen hanging on to the passenger window of one of these buses?

Looking at that picture which probably didn’t capture the whole scene, I could not help but wonder where the road officials where. Not like they help in most situations.

One of the few times I have actually seen an official carry out his duty was when an official took over the bus I was in for the reason that the driver hadn't shut his door properly. Most of the passengers had come down at the previous bus stop but because the drivers had made the habit of having passengers drop off in the middle of traffic before the busstops (such as at CMS and Obalende), the traffic wardens had begun to make sure that drivers make sure their doors are closed until they arrive at the designated bus stops.

Yet, these behaviours are a symptom of a larger problem which the state fails to address. The major mode of transportation in a city like Lagos should not be 5 million cars trying to get on and off 2 or 3 major stretches of road every day. On the average weekday, an individual can spend between 4 and 8 hours, if not more, trying to get to work and back home. A gridlock of the entire city can occur due to one broken-down car, or one overturned trailer or floods from the rains.

Proper integration of ferries and rail would drastically drop this number, and improve living conditions since people like me would likely relocate to Ibadan, but the solutions propagated so far from government officials to alternative means of transport has been more cars, and laughably, walking as a means of exercise, when the goal is to get to work, or anywhere really.

When public officials do their jobs well, they get the people they work for to be more accountable with designs, regulations, infrastructure and functions that enable positive interactions and reinforcement, not an outright ban of vehicles that actually meet a need resulting from a dysfunctional problem.

Take, for instance, this experiment by the police of Mumbai, India which showed how they effectively solved the menace of honking for no reason in their cities, which is a major cause of noise pollution, with a decibel metre. The police realised that the people needed to be reorientated, and probably having used other methods with no fruitful results, put into action a plan which actually deters habitual honkers and creates better road discipline in Mumbai.

Nigeria desperately needs public officials who care enough to think about the public they serve for once.

In the statement from the Lagos state government stating the reason for the ban, which included the technologically advanced, helmet wearing, rule-abiding, options like the Gokada and Opay which had also found a way to include tricycles into its fleet to provide a local solution to a local problem, they had stated that these modes of transport were not part of the greater Lagos plan (the context of which citizens most likely do not know).

But Lagos is not a stranger to the strategy of burdening its developments on the backs of those who need relief the most. In 1990, 300,000 people were displaced to build what is now Lekki without any reasonable resettlement plan, and just recently 4,500 people were displaced from Tarkwa Bay because they didn’t fit into the Greater Lagos plan.

“Okada is not an enduring trade,” the statement reads, and yet millions of naira and thousands of jobs have been generated since one of the popular tech services, OPay, went live to cater to overworked, constantly tired, and always-on-the-move citizens with its bike-hailing app ORide.

Traffic congestion is what is not sustainable: every week, 75% of productive hours are lost to traffic, this, alongside the fact that the average population cannot afford to live in overpriced, substandard buildings near their places of work. Wait long enough at any bus stop and before long, someone is asking you for N50 or N100 to complete their ride to their destinations.

Badly thought-out plans and a lack of consideration for commuters who have to run after rickety, air-polluting buses and who do not own or cannot afford N2000 for an Uber each time they want to move from here to there is not a solution to making any city greater, and anyone who argues otherwise is some percentage removed from the reality of the situation in the world’s poverty capital, and should frankly sit this one out.

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Adaku Nwakanma

Adaku Nwakanma

I write about digital product design.