Lagosians take to the water

Lagos is surrounded by water but most Lagosians use its congested roads to get to work. Dianna Games looks at a scheme that is providing an attractive alternative – commuting by ferry


Lagos is surrounded by water but most Lagosians use its congested roads to get to work. Dianna Games looks at a scheme that is providing an attractive alternative – commuting by ferry

Lagos is a city surrounded by water but its citizens usually battle on congested roads to move between home and work, sometimes sitting for hours every day in traffic jams.

The Five Cowries Terminal is the jewel in the crown of a new approach to water transport in one of Africa’s biggest cities. Perched on the edge of the Lagos Lagoon, the smart new building was commissioned in 2018, housing a comfortable waiting room, a vibey restaurant and multi-storey car park for 800 vehicles. 

The facility was built by Nigeria’s biggest mobile operator, MTN, which has its Lagos headquarters just a short walk away. It was donated to the Lagos State government and is the current head office of the Lagos State Waterways Authority, which has big plans to get Lagosians out of their vehicles and onto the waterways.

Moving commuters to the waterways makes sense. The city is surrounded by water but most commuters still prefer to take their chances on its congested roads to get between the business areas in the more upmarket neighbourhoods towards the sea and the mainland, where most people live. 

Boat services have long been available, but residents are wary of them, regarding them as unsafe. Many worry about the poor maintenance culture in the country and the possibility of operators flouting regulations to push business and cut corners on safety. The boats themselves and facilities for loading and unloading passengers also need some investment. Before 2008, water services were not regulated, adding to safety concerns. 

The Lagos state government has big plans to change all that, dusting off the city’s transport master plan with a view to realising a properly constituted multi-modal system, combining the waterways with road and rail infrastructure. 

Introducing new transport options has become more critical in the wake of a ban by the city authorities on motorbikes and three-wheelers, which millions of people rely on to move around the city. The plan is to make commuting by water safer and easier for residents. Lifejackets, onboard wi-fi and comfortable waiting rooms in main terminals complement a relatively speedy commuter experience. For now, there are no night services because of safety and visibility issues.

Bold ambitions

Lagos Ferry Services (Lagferry), the government agency tasked with the responsibility for water transport in Lagos state, has bold ambitions to increase boat users to nearly 500,000 people by the end of 2020.

MD/CEO of Lagferry, Ladi Balogun, says there was a 30% increase in users in the first two weeks from the launch of the renewed service in early February, which showed an appetite for the convenience of a safe and properly regulated water service. Moving 20m people around was never going to be an easy task and the neglect of transport infrastructure has compounded the problem. 

“Being a megacity and emerging smart city, it is quite obvious that efficient traffic management can best be experienced in Lagos if the three modes of transportation – rail, road, and water – are effect­ively integrated to complement one another,” says Balogun.

He admitted that safety concerns were a constraint, but they aimed to build trust through media campaigns and word of mouth recommendations from users. 

Lagos State has 30 jetties and 40 licensed water routes. But in the first phase, only six routes are being run. They are mostly running across the giant Lagos Lagoon between the main business hubs of Victoria Island, Ikoyi, Apapa and Lagos Island to high density areas on the mainland, including the local government area of Ikorodu, itself an area of almost 800,000 people.

Travelling to Ikorodu by road, with limited arterial roads out of the main business areas, can take up to five hours one way during rush hour. By boat, it is an estimated 30 minutes, not including the onward journey from the jetty. That must surely be a big selling point after a long day in the office. 

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