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Understanding urban transport in Africa with Simon Saddier

In this episode of Reimagining Motion, we talk with Simon Saddier, a Senior Urban Transport Specialist at the World Bank and the Africa Transport Policy Programme (SSATP). We look at the challenges of urban transport across Africa, the expansion of BRT, as well as strategies to create dialogues between formal and informal transport sector organisations.

Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Holger Dalkmann
So let’s start with a brief understanding of the current state of play for urban transport in African cities that you are familiar with. Populations are growing and pressure on movement around cities is growing. What are from your perspectives, the key challenges as well as opportunities for the future of African cities,

Simon Saddier
I think you’ve said it. It all starts with demographic growth.

So today I’m sitting in Abidjan at the start of what we call the Abidjan-Lagos corridor, which is one of the areas in the world that’s going to enjoy the fastest demographic growth in the coming years. Its total population is projected to grow to 51 million by 2035, a scale that’s comparable to, for instance, the East Coast megalopolis in the US when it was first registered as such.

So this urban growth is combined with a lot of sprawl. So the cities, instead of growing vertically, are growing horizontally, which puts a lot of pressure on urban services. You know, the construction of roads is more expensive. The provision of collection for trash, water services, electricity, but also transport, of course. So that’s the second challenge. And the third challenge is that these sprawling cities result in increasingly long trips, distances and long trips cannot be accommodated by active modes of transport, as we call them, as easily. So walking becomes more difficult as trip distances increase cycling as well, especially in the West African sub-Saharan climates.

So there is increased dependency on motorised modes of transport, which is a challenge in itself because then you need to have the infrastructure that is adequate to sort of accommodate this growth. And it also comes with the number of negative externalities, as we like to call them. And by that I mean pollution, greenhouse gas emissions accidents, which are plaguing many African roads.

So these, I would say, are the main challenges. And in addition sort of a transversal one is that there is limited ability to respond to that growing demand in terms of public transport services. So in many African cities, governments have struggled to establish or support public transport services that would be adequate in terms of quantity, but also of quality and standards of comfort and safety for the passengers.

And so as a result, you have a big dependency on what we call paratransit or informal modes of transport that have some advantages. And we’ll talk about this later, I’m sure, but also, you know, face a number of challenges in terms of the externalities that I mentioned, the quality of service, the predictability of the services that they provide.

And so that general picture results in, you know, slow moving traffic congestion in a lot of cities, long journey costs, long journey times and high costs for the users, and thus producing a transport system that is not particularly inclusive and difficult to access for vulnerable members of the community.

So in terms of finance, better governance, urban planning, what makes you optimistic? Are there any cases where you are working or your colleagues have worked on where you feel like, okay, this is actually heading in the right direction?

Yes. I mean, what makes me optimistic is that in those cities there is a strong foundation with the existence of extremely resilient and popular transport or paratransit transport systems. So, you know, despite its faults, the paratransit network moves around millions of urban Africans every day.

And so I think we’re starting more and more now to look at how we could sort of harness the strength of this system and combine it with the more traditional forms of transport, you know, such as mass transit systems on bus corridors, for instance, or light rail, to have sort of a hybrid approach to providing mobility and accessibility to to urban residents. And I think this is really one of the assets of the continent that we must leverage to successfully achieve this transition.

Listen to the full episode wherever you get your podcasts.