Lagos Light Rail Delayed by Cash Shortage

Two corridor project would attempt to restore traffic sanity to Nigeria’s largest city.

Lagos is a huge metropolis — projections put its population at somewhere between 10 and 20 million people — but it lacks an urban rail network. Rather, its citizens mostly rely on small private buses called Danfo or Molue to move about its heavily congested streets and highways. Last year, the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority opened the city’s first bus rapid transit line, which runs 22 km along mostly separated lanes. The project was constructed for $1.7 million per mile, carries approximately 200,000 passengers a day, and saves riders 25 minutes a trip compared to other travel options. But the large city needs other travel modes, and it has been developing a light rail plan, with completion due for 2012. Groundbreaking for the system, however, has yet to commence, putting its future in doubt.

The light rail network — vastly under-scaled for a city with the size and density of Lagos — would consist of two corridors. The Red Line would connect the Marina with the airport along a 37 km line with 13 stations; the route would carry 1.3 million daily riders if estimates are to be believed. A Blue Line would run east-west along 27 km and connect to the Red Line downtown at Iddo; it could eventually carry more than 500,000 daily riders.

Like the BRT system, which was constructed to considerably lower standards than would be acceptable in a more developed country, this light rail project won’t serve as a case study for modernity. To cheapen costs, the 4 to 10-car trains won’t be electrified and stations will be minimal. Though Lagos may deserve a full-scale heavy rail metro, it will be getting something more akin to the New Jersey River Line, just operating at much higher frequencies with much higher-capacity vehicles. Though Nigeria is oil-wealthy, its national government lacks the power to successfully finance major projects of the type Algiers is undertaking, for instance, though that northern African city has support from the French government, something Nigeria lacks.

Even this reduced-cost system is in trouble, though: the Lagos State Government and the Transport Authority have been unable to put together financing for the light rail lines. Major public transportation projects aren’t easy in an environment that’s unstable both economically and politically.

Nevertheless, Lagos has high expectations for its line. As Rem Koolhaas’ fascinating film Lagos Wide & Close describes, the city is choked in traffic and its economy has been severely limited by the lack of infrastructure investment since the construction of major highways in the 1970s. Like American and European cities, this African metropolis sees a major downpayment in public transportation as a potential catalyst for future development. Whether Nigeria will be successful in improving its deprived economy as a whole, however, has yet to be seen.

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Andrew

    seems to me light rail has to be the wrong choice. As far as I can tell, light rail’s only advantage over a high end BRT systems is that wealthy people who look down on buses (ie many americans) might be more likely to ride it, and it may have more effect on stimulating economic development. If you’re actually trying to serve a city where millions travel on slow, dangerous privately operated buses, a high capacity low cost expansion of the existing BRT system seems to make the most sense. Especially if such a system is already up and running, making maintenance easier.

  • Meanwhile, public health in Lagos remains substandard.

  • Andrew’s right. Most developing world countries are also characteriaed by a much less disciplined division of street space than we’re used to in Europe and North America, so any rail service in a street ROW is likely to encounter delays from other vehicles. Buses have the advantage of being able to get around unexpected obstacles and thus function in the real world of the developing world street.

  • Wad

    Development economics theory also has a reason why bus rapid transit systems may be a better fit for developing nations than urban rail.

    It has to do with surplus populations and productivity.

    Developing countries — and Nigeria is an apt example, albeit an extreme one — are practically entirely surplus populations.

    Using that term makes people squeamish. It has connotations that there are too many people who are useless, and it is also frowned upon because of its Marxist origins.

    Yet it describes a condition of the economy, not its people.

    Bus rapid transit would be an appropriate use in an economy such as Lagos’, because it offers practical benefits (high capacity, comparatively high speeds, and efficient use of scarce resources) as well as makes a larger portion of the Lagos populace economically productive than light rail.

    A wage, albeit a terribly low one considering the enormous population, has the potential to produce wealth.

    The network of private buses, in comparison, does not. Libertarians who are so fond of jitney-type transport fail to understand that it is not markets or ingenuity that allow private small-bus transport to flourish. It is necessity, and those small buses produce only subsistence income at best. Those buses do not produce wealth, especially when governments are so weak that organized crime is the regulator by proxy.

    If drivers get a small but steady wage, the burden of putting all income back into keeping the vehicle running are lifted. This allows for either small savings or limited spending. This sustains wealth, albeit at a very slow and small scale.

    In contrast, rail transit would be a disaster to Lagos because of its productivity. Imagine if a few set of trains were enough to obliterate the private small-bus market. If one train operator can do the work of dozens of small buses, this makes even more people redundant. This in turn affects the wages of the transit operators, as the surplus population is so large that it would depress the earning power of the workers.

    BRT is a more optimal solution, as it had less of a potential to overwhelm the surplus populations and can be integrated better into a broader development program.

  • @Wad: Makework is never the solution. Efficiency is good. Labour freed up by efficiency gains can be applied to better tasks.

    It sounds like both BRT and LRT and government funded in this case. Choosing the less efficient option just because it creates more jobs misses the point. If the government has too much money, it should give it directly to the poor without bothering with makework.

  • Wad, what you say about rail displacing jitneys is empirically wrong. Mumbai, with a critically crowded suburban rail system that transports far more people than the rail system of any other third world country, has burgeoning jitney and taxi industries. In truth, neither jitneys/taxis nor BRT/LRT employ a significant fraction of the population. For a large megacity, the employment stands in the tens of thousands. Efficiency improvements may reduce it from the high tens of thousands to the low tens of thousands, but if a city has so little employment that it can’t put that many people into new jobs created by new transit connections, it has bigger problems to worry about than BRT/LRT.

  • Wad

    Alon, I don’t have any disagreement with your final statement, “if a city has so little employment that it can’t put that many people into new jobs created by new transit connections, it has bigger problems to worry about than BRT/LRT.”

    Mumbai is a very large and relatively prosperous city in a country that is heavily populated and poor.

    Mumbai not only serves as a function of generating wealth for a large portion of India, it must absorb the populations of the urban poor and rural emigres. This is a function of cities throughout the world and should not be thought of as unique.

    I am not familiar with Indian transport, but was the suburban system undertaken recently or any time after Indian independence, or was it a vestige of Indian colonial rule? The British Empire did after all heavily develop India’s infrastructure, albeit to extract wealth.

    As for the jitney and taxi industries, “employment” is a nebulous term. That implies a relationship between an employer and a worker. You need a relatively strong government and a private sector for that to happen. If you have a jitney and taxi sector that looks like pure free market competition, that’s actually a sign of a high degree of poverty. Generally, all of the economic activity is subsistence, with very few opportunities to generate wealth for the workers.

    History has shown that as a city region produces wealth, its transportation system tends towards monopolization and regulation. For this to happen, though, there needs to be both a strong and stable economy and government.

    Eventually, Mumbai may need to take the free market out of transportation and impose some regulations. This is a delicate and deliberate process that can’t just be declared by fiat or rushed. If done correctly, the Mumbai region as a whole will end up wealthier.

    As for Leo Petr’s comment: “Makework is never the solution. Efficiency is good. Labour freed up by efficiency gains can be applied to better tasks.”

    If this is true, Leo, half the world would not be living on $2 or less a day.

    Efficiency is terrible in an already poor society, which applies to 6 billion of the 7 billion inhabitants on Earth.

    There has to be an economic function for those displaced by technological advances. Just the sheer population of Lagos pretty much cancels out any efficiency gains, and may even have a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. In a situation like Nigeria, efficiency means that the skill sets essential to build wealth can only be found by leaving Nigeria.

    But back to the point of why select something that ends up “making more work”? Say the government determines that there needs to be a public solution to Lagos’ mobility problem. Let’s assume for this exercise that Nigeria can afford the capital costs of either option and that the government is capable enough of carrying it through (reality says otherwise, especially for the latter).

    Let us also say that the consultants figured out the impacts on an unregulated jitney service. It is thus:
    1. A full light rail train (the maximum number of cars run at the maximum headway) can do the work of 50 jitneys.
    2. A full BRT bus (the maximum number of buses run at the maximum headway) can do the work of 10 jitneys.

    Just on paper, the light rail system wins on efficiency hands down. But you also have to consider the impacts.

    Theoretically, light rail now means one jitney operator with the same skill sets now renders 49 colleagues/competitors useless.

    Realistically, you can expect at a minimum that all 50 would apply to become train operators. That means for the lucky few who are employed, they would become tremendously wealthy. Or would they? With a 1 in 50 chance of earning a job, those remaining 49 can place enormous downward pressure on wages. The train operator now has to do 50 times the work but won’t make 50 times more than while driving a jitney.

    Those other 49 redundant jitney drivers will also place enormous downward pressure on wages as a whole. There’s also a risk that the redundant jitney drivers may end up oversaturating the jitney market, pushing the whole industry in a downward spiral.

    The BRT is bad enough, as 9 workers would be rendered redundant. But, it is much less of a severe impact than having 49 workers lost for every worker gained. There is less downward pressure on wages, but it also leads to some more manageable solutions.

    If the capital were used to create a cheaper system in the same space (BRT or LRT in the same corridor, rather than a larger BRT network than you can buy for LRT), a better solution would be to take some of the left over capital and create equivalent jobs. You could hire an extra mechanic, conductor, security guard and dispatcher with the money left over. You now brought down the 9 redundant workers to 5.

    It’s still unfortunate for the remaining workers who lost out in the bid, but overall, there is less downward pressure on wages and a better chance to build wealth through the wages paid to the workers that were hired.

  • Here’s the thing: BRT wouldn’t make 9 jitney drivers redundant, but 45. The reason BRT might do the work of 10 jitney drivers rather than 50 is that it requires 5 times as many operators to produce the same capacity. That means that instead of 1 person replacing 50 jitney drivers with LRT, BRT would hire 5 people to do the work of the same 50 jitney drivers.

    Public services are never about paying good public sector wages, least of all in the third world. Developing countries don’t have the wealth to have a strong public sector, nor should they try to build one; the last thing any country needs is to turn all entrepreneurs into civil service bureaucrats, which is what happens when the public-to-private wage ratio is too high. Mumbai is lifting itself out of poverty with private activity in Dharavi. Lagos’s only hope is to do the same, rather than to hope that the spending power of a few myriad bus drivers will suffice.

  • Wad

    Alon, the scale of 1:50 and 1:10 doesn’t change when you are factoring in capacity.

    Also, when you have the economic situation in developing countries, capacity is not a high priority among decision makers and engineers.

    The eye is more on the bottom line. Nigeria is looking at “What can I get for $1.7 million a mile?” or “What can I get for a fixed budget?” Nigeria will likely opt for the total cost and lower capital outlay of bus rapid transit.

    This means you can either build more of BRT than light rail, or you could build the light rail system with BRT inputs and save the money.

    Nigeria wouldn’t put a high value on added capacity because it can’t leverage it into anything else productive. It would free up road capacity taken by the jitneys, but what does Lagos offer economically that can take its place? Not a whole lot.

    Lagos shouldn’t even try scaling 5 BRT vehicles to 1 train initially. For one thing, it would be more expensive. Light rail is more cost-efficient at that level of service. But again, Nigeria can’t parlay that efficiency into other economic activity.

    Lagos should deliberately underbuild BRT and take whatever savings and hire more redundant jitney drivers. The excess ridership that cannot be accommodated on BRT can be left to a secondary jitney market, helping to stabilize the labor pool.

  • Yinka

    I appreciate most of the earlier comments on the Lagos light rail project, however it seems most of the posters don’t have real 3rd world experience.
    I live and commute in Lagos and the much i can isay is that the avilable mini-buses and’jitneys’are not able to adequately handle the demands for mobilty in Lagos. In addition the available roads cannot handle the movement pattern which is from several locations to very few. As such the LRT is the most pragmatic solution in this case and it will not immediately serve all routes in Lagos. The LRT will actually make BRT and ‘jitneys’ more profitable to the operators as they would have higher turn-around time.
    This will though only work if a park and ride system is incoporated into the LRT plan, so private drivers need to drive only short distances from theri homes. This has been demonstrated by water ferries in some locations in Lagos

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