11 November 2012

Ethiopia: City Transport Systems Crumbling


One dimension of Addis Abeba seems to become increasingly similar with the Indian city of Mumbaiand the Nigerian city of Lagos, and it is the public transport system. The system that was once the hallmark of the City's modernisation is seemingly turning to be the face of its embarrassment.

The stripes of red and yellow along with the blue and white colours that the public transport service providers of the City employ to identify themselves with are slowly but surely being associated with discomfort, abuse, risk and inefficiency.

At official population size of close to 2.5 million people, though unofficial figures go up to 4.5 million, the city ofAddis Abebais witnessing a crumbling public transport sector. Not that the demand is growing unnaturally, but the supply is not receiving no new offering. It is all getting unmanageable to the loss of a large proportion of productivity.

The casual scene at the transport corridors of the city, which serves as the economic and political capital of the nation, if notAfrica, constitutes long lines of people waiting for possible means of transport to get in to and out of work. It also involves people unable to undertake their daily activities, from shopping to learning, due to shortage of public transport. Many discomfiting individual experiences also happen along with the scarcity.

The incongruence between the naturally-growing demand and the lagging supply has added the uncoordinated construction of major roads to its list of determining factors, especially in the last five years. The sweeping construction of roads in all directions of the city has added a tremendous pain to the sufferings of residents as it further suppresses transport availability. Though it revolutionises localities once completed, its largely uncoordinated implementation brings significant inconvenience to the rather inconsolable public.

Sitting on the piling public transport problems of the city, albeit passively, is the City's Transport Bureau. Delegated with a mandate of streamlining effective public transport system and overseeing it, the office is meant to be the prime guardian of mobility within the city. Yet, its presence is felt nowhere.

The many minibuses drivers operating on the streets of the city remember the existence of the Bureau only when they are required to change their route plates. Even then, they see it not like a sectoral regulator but like a tax authority with an ultimate goal of collecting licensing fees. Lost in the middle of the routine is the bigger strategic oversight role of the Bureau.

Of course, partly, the misconception might carry misrepresentation. But, largely, it is indicative of the rather barely discernible role that the Bureau is playing to solve the complex problems of the City's transport sector.

Such a crumbling transport system and inactive regulator entail unattended inefficiency for the administration of Mayor Kuma Demekssa. Certainly, it could translate into loss of political base. What seems to be puzzling is that a ruling party that fought hard to get the votes of city residents, back in 2008, after a sweeping loss in 2005, is seen failing to be as innovative as their demand dictates.

For political opponents, this is enough a reason for Addis Abebans to vote out the hegemonic ruling party. As it only trades the card of hope, they argue, no more could it be trusted. They attribute the problem to the deeply ingrained rural inclination of the party which has made its performance in urban areas all the more dismal.

Political affiliation aside, though, administrative passivity lies at the heart of the whole set of problems that the City's transport sector experiences. It is obvious that administering an ever-growing city such as Addis Abeba calls for staying grounded in terms of introducing innovative solutions for the multitudes of problems there might exist, not to mention transport problems.

A thoughtful analysis of the state of the City's transport would show that no single factor could be attributed to it. It rather results from a combination of causative factors.

At the base of the problem lies imbalance between demand and stock of vehicles. Declining stock of vehicles, from minibuses to mid-buses and on to city buses, largely due to depreciation, has led to slumping capacity. Inadequate, if any, investment worsens the problem. Hence, the expanding gulf between demand and supply.

The disorganised management of current vehicles expose passengers and operators for rising costs. Lack of traffic planning, insufficient human resource base, absence of new traffic management tools and undeveloped driver licensing system further complicate the problem. Its results outcome, however, is no different than traffic jams and increasing traffic accidents.

As if to prove the poor coordination of the City's Transport Bureau and the City's Roads Authority, traffic on and around roads under construction often goes chaotic. Complemented with poor alternative roads selection, pre-construction planning and substandard project management, the traffic problem often goes off the hook. The amount of total productivity forgone for the problem is indeed skyrocketing.

Despite the worsening problem, authorities remain silent. Their only preaching relates to the ongoing construction of the light railway. It seems that they think it as the panacea for the shattering transport base of the City.

If at all the current situation dictates one thing, it is the importance of putting in place a comprehensive transport plan for the ever-growing city that embraces as many alternatives as possible and enacting it as soon as possible. Therein lays the challenge for the Transport Bureau and, certainly, the administration of Mayor Kuma.

Settling for anything less than a comprehensive plan would only fix the symptoms. This would only postpone the pain but could not uproot it.

A good lesson for the impact of administrative reluctance on city transport could be learned from Mumbai andLagos. The two cities that once hailed as examples of urban development have now end up to be places of urban congestion. For mobility became difficult, even Indian and Nigerian governments moved their capital to other cities. It all goes to be something not to be desired.

Unattended at its current state, the public transport crisis of Addis Abeba would produce a similar result. It could end up with an irreversible state. Indubitably, even the passive Transport Bureau would not like to see the City sliding to such a state.

All indications are, then, that it is high time to put in place a comprehensive transport plan for Addis Abeba that aims to enhance the stock of vehicles, induce private investment, integrate traffic and realise effective road construction management. So much as the consequences of failure are costly and reprehensible, the reluctance to act on time has to be avoided, sooner than later.

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