1. Transport
March 28, 2018updated 19 Jul 2021 10:15am

As African cities grow, they should think less about cars and more about pedestrians

By Saul Billingsley

Some African cities are forecast to double in size by 2030. The continent is experiencing an unprecedented demographic youth ‘bulge’, and motorisation is rapid. In some cities the vehicle fleet is doubling every seven or eight years.

Sub-Saharan Africa already has the most dangerous roads in the world, despite still relatively low levels of motorisation, and young people aged 15-29 are most at risk of death or injury in a traffic crash. Urbanisation, motorisation and the youth explosion could, in the coming years, potentially combine into a public health emergency.

The situation is already severe. Every year around the world more than 1.2m people die in road traffic crashes, and 50m are injured. The vast majority of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. In Africa, pedestrians are most at risk. An African child is already twice as likely to die on the road as her peer anywhere else in the world, including on the crowded streets of India or South East Asia.

Why is this? While road safety is often seen as a matter of bad luck, and while the victims are usually blamed for driving too fast or stepping out at the wrong moment, the truth lies elsewhere. We get the roads our politicians give us – or which we are willing to tolerate.

In the case of urban Africa, this means a futile focus on curing growing traffic congestion with new high speed urban motorways; roads without sidewalks, pedestrian crossings or street lamps; and a lack of either physical segregation or police enforcement to protect pedestrians and cyclists. It is system dysfunction that kills.

So, as a new report from the Overseas Development Institute, World Resources Institute and the FIA Foundation highlights, road deaths have to be recognised as more than just a personal tragedy or bad luck story. They are a barometer of the wider inefficiency or dysfunction of national and city governance. And they are a symptom of a scandalous social inequity in which the poor majority are constantly and wilfully overlooked. The walkers and cyclists who typically make up more than 50 per cent of the road users and almost 70 per cent of the casualties, yet receive less than 5 per cent of the transport investment.

Road safety tends to be viewed purely as a narrow technical issue. Yet for those working to reduce traffic injuries winning the political case for road safety is vital. This requires looking beyond the traditional and convenient ‘victim-blaming’ focus on behavioural mistakes by drivers or pedestrians, and instead grappling with the broader system failures that allow these very human errors to become life-ending or life-changing.

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Urban planning which encourages sprawl, economic development which prioritises vehicle speed over human safety, and political agendas which favour the rich and powerful over the poor and weak: these are the factors which create the conditions enabling road traffic death on an industrial scale.

In cities like Nairobi, which have seen rapid urbanisation and sprawl, people are forced to travel some distance on the roads to reach their place of work every day. The public and political narrative is on traffic congestion and speed. Politicians have focused on large-scale, car-oriented projects that generate short-term political rewards.

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Investments have been skewed towards expanding roads rather than improving the safety of existing roads for pedestrians and cyclists. The government and city authorities have also shied away from regulatory changes for road safety, in part because of the strong resistance by powerful interest groups, including from the powerful ‘matatu’ bus lobby.

A fragmented, multi-agency, governance system in the city has resulted in a somewhat duplicative and disjointed approach to policy. The links between urban land use, road development, mobility and traffic-related injuries are not being recognised, so policy is developed in parallel silos.

And despite the increasingly desperate entreaties of health professionals in over-burdened hospitals, new roads, like the Thika Super Highway, continue to be built through existing communities without sufficient safety facilities for pedestrians. In its first two years of operation, 2015 and 2016, this one road killed more than 100 people.

This week Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta announced the construction of a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line for Nairobi. This is a potentially positive step, providing fast and efficient public transport – but only if the needs of pedestrians are included in the design.

A BRT in Dar es Salaam, in neighbouring Tanzania had to be redesigned after several pedestrian deaths. Nobody, including the international donors funding the scheme, had thought about the impact of rapid buses on people needing to walk across the route.

The good news is that where there is both a political will for change, and a governance structure able to deliver co-ordinated and consistent road safety progress, that change can happen swiftly. Politicians and planners in Africa might do well to cast their eyes across the Atlantic, to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, which reduced its traffic fatality rate by more than 60 per cent between 1996 and 2006. Since then, although further progress has proved elusive, that initial achievement has been sustained. 

Bogotá’s transformation has been closely linked to mayoral leadership and vision, following the adoption of a National Constitution that decentralised many policy responsibilities to local governments. Key was a significant shift in political understanding to viewing traffic fatalities as a system failure to be addressed as a major public health issue.

This political narrative change resulted in reforms in local government structure, urban planning and design for sustainable mobility, and significant changes in enforcement procedures including national and local regulations. The creation of a BRT took many people out of cars, and out of the way of cars.

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Slivers of light are being seen at the end of Nairobi’s tunnel too. Institutional reform is being discussed, with consideration of the creation of a single road safety authority and a metropolitan planning authority. Policy approved in 2016 means that the inclusion of pedestrian walkways and cycle lanes is now mandatory for new road developments, with at least 20 per cent of city transportation budget now earmarked for ‘non-motorised transport.

While the political class remains wedded to a car-centric approach, an increasingly vocal civil society and a growing international movement (helped by the inclusion of road safety and green urban mobility in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals) is beginning to change the narrative towards the ‘safe system’ and a pedestrian-first approach.

With Africa’s cities growing, time is running out to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Successful change will be all about the politics.

Saul Billingsley is the executive director of the FIA Foundation. You can read the full report here.  

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