On the first Monday morning of February, commuters littered the streets of Lagos, stranded and confused as they angrily sought alternative means of transport to work following the motorcycle (Okada) ban by the state government.
Lagos is known for many things; a rich heritage, cultural diversity and entrepreneurial spirit. But, perhaps the one thing the city is most famous for is its chaotic traffic and poor transport network. On average, Lagosians spend 30 hours in traffic every week. To manage this inconvenience, Okadas and tricycles (Kekes) have become increasingly popular due to their ability to navigate traffic and quickly transport passengers to their destinations. Their usefulness became even more profound and formalised when bike-hailing startups like Gokada and Max.ng started springing up, raising millions of dollars in funding and signalling significant investment potential in the market.
But, this unique advantage also has its risks, as many drivers constantly make absurd attempts to snake through impossible spaces with what seems like little regard for their lives or that of their passengers. For many, traffic laws do not exist, and the result is often fatal. In fact, according to the Lagos State Government, motorcycles and tricycles were responsible for 10,000 accidents and 600 deaths between 2016 and 2019. It's hard to tell how accurate the figures are—the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) estimates that each year, there are just 10,000 road accidents in the whole of Nigeria.
What does the ban entail?
Nigeria rarely gets policy right at the first attempt. Unsurprisingly, the Lagos state government has issued a ban on motorcycles in the past.
In 2012, the former Governor of Lagos, Babatunde Fashola banned commercial motorcycles from plying almost 500 routes in the state. Following the ban, hundreds of motorcycles were confiscated by the police, with the objective of curbing the rising rate of motorcycle robberies and accidents in the city.
The 2012 ban was initially for motorcycles with cylinder capacities below 200cc, and so companies like Max.ng bought bikes that were above 200cc to avoid any legal issues with meeting those requirements.
Unfortunately, that plan didn't work. This time around, the government has decided to ban all Okadas, even though the Lagos State Transport Sector reform laws of 2018 protected these bigger 200cc bikes from previous Okada highway bans.
Big engine or small, the government claims that the new ban was born out of security and safety concerns. Present Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, insists that the ban is here to stay and will not be revoked. To address the criticism and uproar, Sanwo-Olu announced the launch of 14 commercial boats and deployed a fleet of 65 buses across new routes to expand transport options. But Lagosians are not impressed with this band-aid solution.
Arguably, the ban might be a necessary evil to catapult Lagos into the next phase of its development. But it blatantly ignores the harsh realities of the majority, especially when it comes to mobility.
"BRT fit enter my street?" was the message printed on the placards of angry protesters expressing valid concerns. Clearly, the government is either ignoring or refusing to acknowledge that the underlying problem here is the lack of alternatives for inner-city/road travel. And quite frankly, big buses and ferries cannot embark on the quick trips usually handled by motorcycles and tricycles, especially in congested areas and slums with impassable road networks.
The good, the ban and the ugly
The Okada ban is bound to hit Lagois negatively on different fronts.
Economically, the ban has already driven up transport fares as bus drivers take advantage of the extra demand and insufficient alternatives. After the haggling process, motorcycle and tricycle riders usually charge between ₦30 - ₦100 depending on location, a small price compared to taxi fares. But now, people would be forced to spend a higher portion of their already lean disposable income on bus fares.
According to the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA), in 2013, the average Lagosian spent 40% of their income on transportation. But the price increases will have ripple effects through the economy as the cost of transporting goods, including food, will also put pressure on other items Lagosians consume. Even though the ban will hurt lower-income groups the most, every Lagosian will feel the impact.
There is also a productivity problem. Commuters will be forced to spend long hours in the scorching Lagos sun searching for a viable means of transport; for many, there will be no alternative but to walk long distances. This hits productivity in two ways. Firstly, more time is spent travelling on the road instead of carrying out productive work—an estimated ₦42 billion is already lost in economic activity from the time spent in Lagos traffic; that number is bound to rise as a result of people spending even longer on the road.
The second productivity hit will be from the extra level of exhaustion and stress from the more difficult route into the office. This lowered productivity will be bad news for long term economic growth.
On the investment front, the unexpected ban sends a negative signal to the global economy emphasising the risk of doing business in Nigeria. Lagos has always been perceived as an attractive investment destination, hence why private bike-hailing companies like Max.ng, ORide and Gokada have collectively raised over $100 million to scale operations in Lagos. Just last year, the state government pledged to improve the ease of doing business in the city and create a conducive environment for private sector investors to thrive. Investors prefer a stable and predictable environment so, these policy inconsistencies will drive them away from Lagos.
Lastly, unemployment which is already at 14% will rise as an estimated 800,000 drivers have become involuntarily unemployed with no alternative source of income. Let us not also forget the food vendors stationed at Okada parks and the mechanics specialised in fixing these vehicles who have lost a bulk of their customers.
But, the story is not all bad.
Some will benefit from the misfortunes of others. Uber, Bolt and even Danfo buses are already hiking up their prices amidst increasing demand. The residents of Lagos will now depend on them in the absence of motorcycles and three-wheeled vehicles.
There are also some other not so obvious winners. This ban opens up a new market for bicycle sellers—targeted at those who live in extremely remote areas with no bus routes. More private drivers have also entered the market, many of them already picking up passengers randomly on the street. Bus-hailing companies like Plentywaka are leveraging on the ban and providing a vital service to stranded commuters. Prior to the ban, people even used Okadas to buy groceries and so their absence might create more opportunities for similar services in the physical or e-commerce sector.
The prevalent issue with policy in Nigeria is that the intent might be commendable, but the approach is sometimes flawed. It is inhumane to abruptly cut off the livelihood of millions of people without sufficient warning or providing a suitable alternative.
Lagos is actively striving to meet the global standard of what a mega-city should be, but its transport infrastructure is a great hindrance to achieving this goal. While it is true that motorcycles and tricycles often created chaos on the streets, we cannot overlook the essential service they provide for those who prefer their convenience and cannot afford taxis on a daily basis. There is also a question of safety with more pedestrians on Lagos streets which lack sidewalks and the danger of more people walking at night in areas without street lights.
The most effective and successful governments are those that listen to their people. The people of Lagos have spoken and its the government's call to listen. Bans are historically difficult to really implement without unintended consequences. In the meantime, perhaps, the government should reconsider regulation while working to deliver an efficient multi-modal transport system for the city. Everybody wins that way.
While the government slowly considers its next move, for the private sector, creative and practical solutions to Lagos's transport issue are needed now more than ever.