Better Know an African City: Managing Lagos Traffic With Technology

Posted on October 2, 2011


Lagos Traffic - Source |

My mom is a stickler for time. She likes to proclaim never having missed a flight in her more than 60 years of existence. My mom is such a stickler for time (and a hater of Lagos traffic) that whenever we’re going from Ibadan (or as someone called it, “the last stop in civilization” – pshaw!! my poor maligned Ibadan) to Lagos to catch a 10pm or 11pm flight, we leave Ibadan around noon. This is always a source of annoyance for me because we inevitably arrive before check-in opens. Once checked in, Lagos’ airport lounges offer only so much that can be used to kill 4 hours of wait time before cabin fever takes over.

On a good day, door-to-door travel from our house to Murtala Mohammed shouldn’t take more than circa 2 hours. In reality, we inevitably come across Traffic with a capital T. There was the 1-hour+ “go-slow” on a 2/3-mile stretch of freeway during Ramadan (after a 1-hour+ go-slow on a 3/4-mile stretch of road between Ikeja and the main freeway to Ibadan). Trailer drivers were stopping at a makeshift truck stop to break from fasting and were trying to turn their massive trucks on a narrow pot-hole filled stretch of “freeway” barely wide enough for two cars. With trailer beds loaded with tons of iron or gallons of (potentially explosive) petroleum products, the sheer madness of it all was unparalleled. Our 2-hour journey became a more than 4-hour journey.

Something almost always happens on the Lagos/Ibadan freeway, but that doesn’t even consider the madness that is Lagos traffic itself. I once sat through the most righteous traffic jam ever on a stretch of Lekki road on the way to a wedding at the beach; I shudder to think of what would happen during the rainy season when roads flood knee-deep. I still remember the excerpt on Lagos from an atlas my parents bought me for my 10th birthday. It included a definition of “go-slow” and a photo of a guy on a motorcycle weaving through a traffic jam; that was the atlas’ definition of Lagos.

It’s no Einstein-worthy revelation to say that solving Lagos’ traffic problem (and, more generally, improving Nigeria’s poor transportation network) is one of the keys to sustaining growth and economic development in Nigeria. As West Africa’s economic powerhouse, the cost of living skyrockets when the cost of transporting basic goods comes at a premium due to poor infrastructure. There’s also the opportunity created for armed bandits who attack cars slowing down to avoid pot-holes the size of craters on the surface of the moon. Public safety and cost of living are fundamental to securing a basic level of quality of life that allows a society to evolve and grow in the way Western societies have done since the industrial revolution.

I came across in a recent issue of Monocle. The platform seems like a great idea (in theory): traffic alerts are crowdsourced via Twitter, E-Mail or SMS and delivered via the website or sent directly to subscribers who sign up for alerts. Users can even tailor alerts to specific roads so that, for example, you receive an alert when there’s traffic on Ozumba Mbadiwe road. While the service is meant to roll out a nationwide version, it is in public beta covering Lagos at the moment.

While the idea is a fantastic application of modern technology to developing Africa, the only problem I see is that it seems like no-one is sending through traffic alerts! On a recent visit to the site, the alert stream was empty of alerts save for a few tweets. It’s a shame as this service would be extremely handy as a counterpoint/band-aid whilst government sorts out the root cause of the traffic. I think an especially useful service would be inclusion of danger alerts for armed attacks and collisions on Nigeria’s unmanned roads.

There’s a huge opportunity for tech in Nigeria, and greater Africa. The obvious example is the success with which Ory Okolloh (Google Policy Manager for Africa, and all-around awesome woman) & co. deployed Ushahidi as a monitor for riots during the 2008 Kenyan elections. I suppose the key is educating the masses and getting people comfortable incorporating technology into their everyday lives.

If you haven’t already, visit and try it out!