Oshodi Market, Lagos. Credit: Thomas Dworzak/TIME
If the Lagos State Government is to be believed, very soon, a commuter will be able to travel from Okokomaiko, on the outskirts of the city, to the heart of the Lagos Island Business District, in about 40 minutes. (I’ll let the residents of Okokomaiko fill us in on how long it takes them by car, during morning rush hour – I’m certain it’s currently not less than twice or thrice that).
It sounds like a miracle. And it is a long overdue one, no doubt; Lagos is perhaps the only city of its population and heft in the world that is without a city-wide rail system.
It will probably be the most transformative thing to happen in this city in several decades. And it is only fitting to have it taking place in Lagos, the crown jewel of the Nigerian economy. Hopefully, its success will spur renewed focus, across the country, on ambitious, value-adding infrastructure projects.
According to investment bank, Rencap, Lagos, Kano and Oyo states are Nigeria’s biggest economies, with estimated 2012 Gross Domestic Products at $31.2bn, $16.8bn and $14.2bn respectively.
This immediately tells us a few things. One, that the move by the Federal Government to revive the Lagos-Kano railway line, a hundred years after it was first opened by the colonialists, is hugely commendable. Now, the challenge before the government is to speed the journey up, so that it takes far less than the 30 hours it currently takes. Mr. President might want to consider setting forth a “road map” that assures a 10-hour trip by a specified date.
There’s also no bigger evidence of the importance of the collapsed strip of road that is called the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway than the fact that it connects Nigeria’s biggest and third biggest economies. (Which then goes on to reinforce the arguments for a speeding up of the Lagos-Kano Railway line, since it’ll mean even faster journeys and more travel options between Lagos and Ibadan).
Imagine if you could guarantee travel between Lagos and Ibadan in one to one-and-half hours – emphasis being on “guarantee”: the assurance that no effusion of potholes or accident wrecks or selfish religious zeal fashioned against safe and speedy travel will prosper against your journey in and out of Lagos.
A fairly-high-speed rail service leading in and out of Lagos will radically change the way we think and work and live and relax.
It will become conceivable to live in Ibadan or Abeokuta or Sagamu and work in Lagos – considering that people who live in Lagos already spend upwards of two hours on one leg of their daily commutes.
An Okokomaiko that is only 40 minutes away from the Marina will no longer be “Okoko-where?” for many Lagosians, and residents will now have to contemplate the easy choice between waking up at 4.30am and spending two or three hours in vehicular traffic to make it to work, or catching an extra hour and half of sleep and spending less than an hour on a train that zips past rush-hour traffic – assuming of course that we get a rail system that is not dysfunctional and that actually runs to time and schedule.
It won’t be an easy transformation, let’s get that clear. Not in a country that specialises in turning everything into the equivalent of a post-doc in rocket science. I imagine that the operators of the light rail will soon have to face the difficult task of combating faked rail cards and all sorts of associated scams.
And there will also be the challenge of security, especially early in the morning and late at night, when criminals will seek to take advantage of the cover of darkness, as they currently do in vehicular traffic. The CCTV cameras and adequate lighting should sort that out, and in that regard the Lagos State Government inspires some confidence.
I think the biggest challenge surrounding a future of rail in Nigeria will be this: convincing enough people to abandon their cars – and the relative comfort and control that come with being the pilot of your own journey – and switch to mass transit.
Especially considering the facts of life in a society as riven by class pretensions as ours, a land where everyone becomes a Big Man or Woman at the earliest opportunity. Will enough of the multiple-car-owning class – who will of course not hesitate to take the Subway/Tube in New York or London – really consider hopping on a train from Marina to the National Arts Theatre in Iganmu, to see the premiere of a new Wole Soyinka play?
Speaking of which, the emergence of the Lagos light rail system inspires the possibilities of a revival of the comatose National Theatre. One of the biggest issues with that Theatre – which, together with the Civic Centre, would constitute arguably the most iconic landmarks of the city – is its location; it seems to me trapped in a swampy no-man’s land between the Mainland and the Island, difficult or even impossible to freely access.
Now that one of the stations of the light rail berths just outside it, perhaps we should be excited. Add uninterrupted nighttime lighting – possibly from one of the city’s IPP projects – and just maybe, enough Lagosians will feel comfortable enough to “Alight here for the National Theatre and Artists Village.” (Repeat that in Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba and Pidgin.”)
The Blue Line – the name given to the line which runs East-West across the city from Okokomaiko to Marina, and which makes a stop at the National Arts Theatre – is already almost finished; from the Eko and Carter Bridges, you can see its imposing concrete rising – to appropriate an image used by Wole Soyinka in a 2011 Newsweek tribute to the new spirit of Lagos – like Aphrodite from the foam of a sea of impatient bumpers and grey fumes.
There’s a second line – the Red Line – that is also supposed to be completed alongside the Blue Line. This one will travel North-South from Agbado to Marina, and should have a connecting line to the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Ikeja.
Just imagine how great it would be to be able to travel from the Island to the MMIA in fixed time, regardless of day or time. Finally, we might be able to drive into extinction those tragicomic images of panicky airport-bound travellers hopping from trapped-car onto revving-okada, luggage balanced precariously on their heads or laps, desperate to not miss their flight.
There’s a long way to go, but it has to start somewhere. All visionary administrators in today’s Nigeria unfortunately have to bear the crushing burden of dealing with deep-rooted failings left behind by the visionless generations that preceded them.
Just imagine if the Lagos-Kano railway line had never gone comatose; or that Lagos had got a Metro-line when it was first proposed thirty years ago by the Jakande administration. All we would need to be doing today was building on existing structures, moving on to the next level of iteration in a system already used to such.
Herein lies a lesson to city administrators across the country; to dream and build for the future, not the present.
Which is why states such as Ogun, Oyo and Ondo (and others) should already be thinking of citywide light rail systems, at least for their capitals. You shouldn’t have to wait until your cities are creaking under the weight of Lagos-like chaos (and that is inevitable, as Nigeria’s population surges virus-like) before you start making plans for cities that work efficiently.
Future generations will thank you. And there’s no better time than now, a month in which we commemorate the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy who dreamt of America on the moon well before it was fashionable to do so. That he, as fate would have it, didn’t even live to see his dreams come true, is a tragedy, but in it lies one truth: The greatest amongst us will be the ones who prepare for a future they aren’t even expecting to see.