When in 2017, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode vowed to banish the yellow buses from the high streets of Lagos, many thought it was another bogus promise. But last week, it seemed as if the dream’s fulfillment was just weeks away, as the state Transportation Commissioner Ladi Lawanson said the government would be rolling out 820 buses, to signpost the administration’s determination to reform the state’s transportation architecture.
Like former Governor Babatunde Fashola, who pushed the ubiquitous, but rickety Molue, away from the state’s transportation system with the Bus Rapid Transit, (BRT), Ambode may, with the Bus Reform Initiative (BRI) bequeath a novel initiative, which if sustained could transform the state’s transportation landscape forever.
According to Lawanson, the BRI is government’s way of seizing the transportation space that had long been controlled by private sector operators, who have formed themselves into “lords and untouchable masters of the road”.
Government, he said, was set to begin a process of organising the sector and make it more responsive to the yearnings of moving a robust population of commuters in a safe, comfortable, cheap and properly regulated public transportation system.
He said: “The bus reform project is designed to find solutions to perennial challenges of poor quality service by bus operators, unpredictable fare, unhealthy competition, high rate of accidents and unreliable service.”
Under the reform, government, he said, would be replacing the yellow mini buses with air conditioned buses of uniformed specification that would run on predictable bus schedules and defined routes that would be supported by appropriate infrastructure.
Signaling this project in 2017, Governor Ambode said the state would be voting N30 billion to a rounded project that would include the provision of terminal infrastructure, 100 bus shelters and new buses that would provide comfortable alternative to commuters.
Ikeja Bus Terminal became the flagship of the initiative and others soon sprang up at TBS, Yaba, Oyingbo, Ojota, Ajah, and Agege, with another proposed for Maryland. These are to be complemented by the world class and iconic Oshodi Interchange, the three first multi-storey terminals to be delivered by May.
Indeed, the most audacious of Ambode’s impact on governance in Lagos may well be the bus reform.
That made Lawanson to urge the people to take ownership of the project and guard against its misuse and vandalisation.
In the first phase of the project, 75 out of the planned 100 bus shelters have been completed, to support the 820 buses that are ready to flag-off operation anytime soon.
The third leg is the training of professional drivers and the acquisition of Intelligent Transport System (ITS), for a seamless operation of its rolling stock and travel convenience of commuters.
From its initial roll off dateline of October, the BRI, which was supposed to intergrate 23 routes and restore Lagosians’ confidence in public transportation, had suffered three postponements. The first was in October, last year, then January, this year, and later pushed to after the election by the governor.
While inspecting all the connected projects in January, Ambode had hinted that while government had imported the first phase of 820 buses, its intention was to ensure that the remaining buses needed for injection into the system would be rolled out of the plant at Awoyaya, in Ibeju-Lekki and Epe, where an assembly plant is presently sprouting.
The buses, he said, would be managed by the Lagos Bus Assets Limited, and would be franchised to fleet operators, under whose canopy the present yellow bus operators with capacity to manage fleets could scale up their operations.
“Let me again restate that this is not in any way a move to ban the yellow buses or take them away from the roads. It is to give to Lagos a modern transport service that befits a mega city.
“All transport unions will be given an offer of first refusal because it will run on a franchise system where franchise operators will be allocated a multiple of 50, 100 to 200 buses.
“Of the 3,600 large capacity, 1,400 would be medium capacity buses. The buses will carry between 30 to 47 passengers and come with modern facilities, such as wifi, mobile phone charging points, among other conveniences.”
He noted that with the eventual take-off of the reform, there would be a re-routing of existing bus operators to service the inner roads.
This, the commissioner said, would provide transportation alternatives closer to the residents.
Available data from the Ministry of Transportation showed that the rickety yellow buses account for about three million out of the seven million vehicles on the state’s roads.
With a population of 26.6 million, 12 million people depend on rickety private commercial buses and about eight million walk as a form of transportation. Providing acceptable, affordable and comfortable means of transportation for the common man has remained a major headache for successive governments.
Transportation in Lagos State had been largely private-sector driven, with large fleet operators, dominating the space since pre-independence era.
The intervention of organised operators in transportation services saw the introduction of more ‘modern’ large-capacity buses, which gave birth to molue, which survived for decades and many governments until the Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration’s initiatives pushed them to operate on the fringes.
With the cancellation of the Lagos Metroline project in 1983, the government had in 1986 diverted the World Bank assistance into the Bus Transit option, with the Lagos State Transport Corporation (LSTC), which injected 300 large capacity buses managed by LSTC.
Although the LSTC failed, but from its ashes came Lagos State Bus Assets Limited (LAGBUS), and a much stronger and adequately-backed Lagos Area Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LAMATA) that spear-headed the state’s strategic transportation masterplan (STMP) since the turn of the millennium.
That was why the governor said he would be rolling out a N100 billion bond to finance its numerous initiatives aimed at making the movement of people and goods painless.
Of this, the government will provide N30 billion capital to elicit interest, while investors are to make up the balance.
Ambode, by concentrating on deepening the roads, seemed to have convinced himself to go by the most plausible alternative that can bring quick returns.
He said: “We decided that no matter the solution that we want to give the traffic management, we must also now provide a comfortable means of moving people, and encourage the middle class and majority of our people to drop their cars at home. That is the idea with this bus initiative, which is to prepare Lagos to be a global competitor.”
Before Ambode, getting the upper and middle classes of the society to drop their cars and use other alternatives have been at the heart of a strategic transportation planning over the past two decades.
From the era when bicycles made way for vehicles and the roads became less pedestrian-friendly, successive administrations have been trying to introduce initiatives aimed at restraining vehicular density in a state, whose vehicular density is 58 per cent above the national average.
Some of the initiatives included the construction of roads with improved Intelligent Traffic Control Systems (ITS), roads with appropriate pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes have been experimented with.
A number of stakeholders agreed that the rickety yellow buses have become an embarrassment to a state moving from a megacity to becoming a smart technology driven city.
Mr Patrick Adenusi of Safety Without Borders said the yellow buses were a shame to the state’s megacity status. Arguing that the buses were not built for services to which they had been deployed, Adenusi said many commuters have been killed and others injured by the recklessness of their operators.
Ambode said it might not be too long for Lagos to blaze a trail in public transportation where the people are given a new deal in land transportation.
With two of the terminals ready, it may not be too long before Lagosians begin to enjoy a new dividend of comfortable, more organised public transportation that would meet the state’s status as the star of the black race and the third biggest economy in Africa by 2020.