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Thriving mad in the go-slow


It is a given that Lagos go-slow is not for the faint-hearted. I have seen many a strong-spirited driver reduced to tearful tantrums behind the wheel, sitting in a gridlocked junction in Ikeja or trying to manoeuvre one of the many Lekki roundabouts where you will often find a car or three taking on the roundabout in the wrong direction. Enough to drive anyone mad (See what I did there?) with its sheer chaos, let alone the daily road rage incidents and accidents that beggar belief leaving over half of the cars in the sprawling metropolis bumper cars with an array of bangs, dents and broken headlamps.

I have had the misfortune of driving in a few countries. In France, we were advised numerous times to drive as close to the curb as possible to avoid drivers who had no spatial awareness and insisted on driving in the middle of the road down the tiniest back roads. In Belgium, it was the same story. On the German Autobahns, it was a white-knuckle ride, with half-hearted speed limits and daredevil drivers in fast cars. In Turkey, right after I got my driver’s license, a fresh-faced young driver, I stalled the car in the middle of a busy main artery, and frustrated by my mum’s backseat driving, nagging and panicking, promptly left the car chucking the key at her, never finding the courage to get behind the wheel in Istanbul after.

It came as no surprise this week when Forbes published the list of the world’s best and worst cities for drivers and both Istanbul and Lagos featured on the latter. The study, conducted by the German auto parts retailer kfzteile24, based on an analysis of local congestion levels, average cost of parking and fuel, average roadway speeds, air pollution levels, number of traffic injuries, and road quality as well as the frequency and perception of road rage.

Topping the list of best cities to drive in is Dusseldorf because, among other factors, its highways are congested a mere 20% of the time, whereas in Kolkata, the world’s worst city for drivers, the roads are 69% traffic-jammed – the highest level among all 100 rated global cities. Coming in at number three behind Kolkata in India and Karachi in Pakistan is Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub, with 60% congestion, 10.70 mph average speed. Just scraping in at number 10 is my hometown, Istanbul, with 49% congestion, 11.80 mph average speed.

Having spent a Sunday afternoon in traffic trying to make it from the international airport on the European side of the city to my mum’s house on the Asian side in a little over four hours – the same amount of time spent flying from London to Istanbul, I am somehow surprised Istanbul didn’t score higher.

These days of course, most of my driving happens in the civilised, fairly uncongested roads of East Anglia. The Lagos traffic a distant dream, except on the odd day when there is an accident or a breakdown on the motorway and you sit in traffic for a mere 40 minutes telling yourself, it could be much worse, you could be in Lagos.

Last week the traffic on the M1 came to a standstill as a suspicious package was found on the northbound side. As the motorway was promptly shut northbound, the motorists on the south bound side of the affected area were stuck in their cars for eight hours before the traffic could be diverted. Within the first two hours, news reports began trickling in, showing drivers playing football, skateboarding and dancing on the empty stretch of the northbound carriage. While that does say a lot about the British stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on’ ethics, I thought of the endless opportunities the Lagos go-slow provides daily.

People watching – Regardless of whether you are the one behind the wheel or not, there are such long expanses of time at standstill that if you, like me, enjoy people watching, Lagos go-slow is your playground

Having a meal – In Istanbul you’ve got the odd water or Turkish bagel seller, while in Lagos it is possible to enjoy a full meal on wheels.
Widening your horizons – You can find a wide array of reading material in the Lagos traffic, anything from Encomium magazine to The Guardian to Forbes Africa magazines to books such as What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. It’s a matter of time before you can obtain a university degree just buy sitting in traffic.

Decorating your house – I was so amazed, during my first trip to Lagos, by the sheer variety of paraphernalia you could find on the road. Toilet seats, shower curtains, hot water bottles (in one of the hottest places in the world?), kitsch ‘70s decorations, puppies and chickens… Considering many Lagosians spend more than half their day in the Lagos go-slow, it is possible to shop from the comfort of one’s car seat without ever stepping into a shop.

Encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit – Not that there is any need to encourage the average Nigerian’s entrepreneurial endeavours, which can be seen in full flow in the Lagos go-slow. If you’ve ever seen a plantain chip seller give Usain Bolt a run for his money with his sprint after his 200 naira in the moving traffic, you will know what I mean.

While Lagos infrastructure is a major issue which needs addressing, and once addressed, can do wonders for the city’s progress, let’s also recognise its chaotic energy and thriving spirit and the daily amusement it provides alongside the exasperation.

In this article:
Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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