When the government of late General Murtala Mohammed in 1975 proposed that a new federal capital be created as the then capital, Lagos was getting congested, it was expected that the new site, Abuja, which was planned for a population of 3.1m people will be conducive for living and not have the problems that plagued Lagos, namely congested housing and an inefficient transport system.
However, it has not exactly turned out to be so 22 years after the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida moved the capital to Abuja, the population has exploded to 1.8m people in the city center and 6.2m in the satellite towns. While the city is still far from congested compared to Lagos, there is an urgent need for a better transport system for moving the mass of people that commute within the federal capital daily.
The city does not have the intra-city rail system that was in the original plan – it is just being constructed now. Thus, it depends on buses to move round the city. The Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) has banned small buses and has licensed five companies to operate mass transit buses within the city. However, there are only a little above 200 mass transit buses to serve the huge amount of people in need of transport, and the buses do not even ply every route. As a result, long queues at bus stops are commonplace and those who are able to afford the exorbitant taxi fares opt for that.
The only other forms of public transport available are taxis which are either chartered or run like passenger buses (popularly called “along”) and tricycles (keke). These do not carry as many as buses would and are also not on every route.
So what is the way forward? How do we push for better mass transit in Abuja – one that is affordable, efficient and equally important, environmentally sustainable?
I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to be part of a roundtable discussion organized by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Foundation (the German Green Foundation) which had journalists, bloggers and social media influencers and Dr. Femi Sumaila, a former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Transport Technology (NITT), Kaduna and a transport consultant in attendance, where ideas were proffered on how to improve Abuja’s chaotic mass transit system.
There was a very vibrant discussion that produced sound ideas on how to solve the mass transit issue. The ideas presented here are by no means conclusive – the goal of this post is to get feedback from readers, especially users of the current Abuja mass transit system that will be used to advocate with concrete, constructive ideas on how to improve the city’s transit issue:
To start with, like every problem, there should be a short-term solution and another one in the medium-to-long term.
An immediate solution is increasing the number of mass transit buses in the city. It is estimated that at least 1000 high occupancy vehicles should be running effectively and approximately 2000 mini-buses to serve as feeders to the major roads and bus stops. This number will also be able to accommodate the city’s growing population. This also means that more bus operators have to be licensed, and it will also help to have a huge reduction on the import duties of high-occupancy vehicles so as to make them cheaper.
Not forgetting the affordability part of the solution, there has to be a way to reduce the cost to the commuters. This means that subsidies need to be considered. After the experience with fuel subsidies, it has almost become like a taboo term. But these subsidies will not involve the transfer of monies at any time in order to avoid corruption.
These subsidies should be in the form of tax waivers to the licensed bus operators, and then cheaper supply of fuel to the high-occupancy vehicles at designated stations. High-occupancy vehicles run on either diesel or compressed natural gas (CNG) – which are both fuels not as commonly used as petrol, and this significantly cuts down or eliminates the risk of bus operators reselling the fuel and shortchanging the system.
Copying Lagos, Abuja needs to also have a bus rapid transit (BRT) scheme, where mass transit buses have dedicated lanes. This scheme should bring all the stakeholders in the transport sector together such as the local authority who will co-ordinate with decision makers, participate in the planning process and provide part of funding for needed infrastructure such as bus stops and special bus lanes, the transport operators responsible for funding, transport planners with the primary task of designing and planning the scheme, financial advisors that define the financial structure and searches for funding resources, system providers being the organization responsible for implementation and finally the law enforcement agents such as the police that will enforce the existing regulations during operations.
To make the scheme work efficiently, consideration needs to also be given to those who will drive these vehicles – a training school for the drivers of especially the high-occupancy vehicles. These can be done in conjunction with NITT.
In the long-term, the ongoing construction of the light railway system needs to be sustained with more lines added to it. These lines should be between points where large number of commuters congregate e.g. Nyanya to Area One, Nyanya to Airport, Kubwa to Wuse, etc.
The idea of magnetic levitation trains (MAGLEV) needs to also be considered for Abuja, as they last much longer than diesel-run trains (insert statistics here) and most importantly, have zero emissions which makes them environmentally friendly.
So how do we make all these ideas work together and the mass transit system run properly?
Currently, transportation issues in the Federal Capital are the purview of the Transport Secretariat which is under the FCTA. One disadvantage of this structure is that it has to compete for budget and attention with other departments within the FCTA and this limits its ability to address pressing issues. Huge capital projects, such as the light rail system, are handled by the Federal Capital Development Administration (FCDA).
There is need for a separate transportation agency, such as the “Abuja Area Transportation Agency” which is not linked to the FCDA or Transport Secretariat. This will help to curb corruption and promote efficiency by the separation of operation and regulation functions as is the case with the Telecom sector. The Abuja Area Transportation Authority (AATA) will handle transport matters in the FCT. It will function as an autonomous and self-accounting organ of Government. This recommendation should be able to strengthen the capacity of FCDA to plan, manage and regulate urban transport and serve as the sustainable transportation management strategy for FCT.
The transport agency will regulate the public transport operators by defining their routes. Any shortfalls for plying routes that are not viable should be able to be absorbed by the proposed subsidies. Any defaulting operators should be penalized or discarded. Mini buses should be under licensed operators and not allowed to operate without regulation or structure.
They will also define the role that the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) will play and not allow them to play an outsized role which ends up adding to the chaos.
Lastly, civil societies and most importantly, the commuters who will use the transport system will be encouraged to act as watchdogs and be part of the decision making process in improving the system.
With an excellent mix of the BRT scheme and a light rail system, it is possible to have a reliable, efficient and sustainable transport system for Abuja.
What do you think of these ideas? You have any thoughts or questions? Please leave a comment.