Sunday, 3rd December 2023

BRT: Echoes of molue reverberate as service delivery plummets

By Azeez Olorunlomeru
29 July 2023   |   4:12 am
With an ever-growing population and a mega-city status, Lagos was always in dire need of an organised public transportation system. Everyday, residents grappled with chaotic transportation. With traffic snarls, dilapidated vehicles, impatient drivers, commuting in and around Lagos was a nightmare. 

Out of service BRT buses at one of the depots in Lagos

Govt, Private Sector Players Must Dialogue To Sustain Scheme – Franchisee

With an ever-growing population and a mega-city status, Lagos was always in dire need of an organised public transportation system. Everyday, residents grappled with chaotic transportation. With traffic snarls, dilapidated vehicles, impatient drivers, commuting in and around Lagos was a nightmare. 

In that forgettable past, molues and danfo buses, marked in yellow and black stripes, were kings of Lagos roads. Rickety, poorly maintained, dirty, crowded and almost always uncomfortable, they were, often than not, driven by uncouth drivers and conductors.

For every trip or alternate trip you made on any of the vehicles, you were certain to also meet a mobile marketer of all sorts of merchandise, or an evangelist of one of the faiths who would be bent on winning souls for the Supreme Being.

For many Lagosians, riding on public buses was just an unpleasant experience; it represented chaos. So, when the Lagos State government established the Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) in 2008, it brought fresh air to transportation across the state. The scheme was fashioned to enable easy navigation of specialised buses through dedicated lanes and to fast-track movement of residents in and around Lagos.

THE BRT was indeed a dynamic solution to Lagos transportation needs that had, hitherto, proven to be a tested solution in other cosmopolitan cities like Jakarta in Indonesia; Mexico City in Mexico; Ottawa in Canada; Johannesburg in South Africa; New York in the USA; Istanbul in Turkey; Cairo in Egypt and Guangzhou in China.

Before its launch, the United Nations regarded Lagos as about the only mega city yet to have an organised public transportation. The population was described as very mobile and largely reliant on public transportation. But the lack of a formally organised public transport led to gross inefficiencies in its provision and a low level of service to commuters who were forced to use it.

Simply put, public transport in Lagos was described as chaotic, inefficient, expensive, low quality and dangerous both in terms of road traffic accidents and personal safety. But the commencement of the BRT scheme changed the narrative and brought smiles to many a Lagosian.

With a population of almost 16 million people, and an ever-increasing demand for an organised and pocket-friendly public transportation system by low-income earners, the BRT system was indeed a fitting response to the yearnings of residents, and provided commuters with a clean, affordable and reliable means of getting around the city.

The first phase of the scheme was launched on March 17, 2008, on Ikorodu road from Mile 12 – Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS). The operations were franchised to the 1st BRT Cooperatives, an arm of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, Lagos State chapter.

At inception, the scheme commenced operations with 220 buses, operating between 6.00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. daily, and transported more than 200,000 passengers daily. Within the first four years of operation, the scheme had transported more than 220 million passengers.

The BRT lane was later extended to Ikorodu roundabout from Mile 12 and a new operator, Primero Transport Services Limited (PTSL), a private sector operator, was brought on board in November 2015 to anchor the BRT operations from Ikorodu roundabout to TBS.

From the Babatunde Fashola to Akinwunmi Ambode, and Babajide Sanwo-Olu administration, subsequent administrations had since increased routes on the scheme to other parts of the state with more clean, spacious, and air-conditioned BRT buses added to the fleet.

The BRT scheme steadily gained acceptance from residents. Modern bus stations sprung up in CMS, Obalende, Ikeja, Oyingbo, Yaba, Ewu, Agege, Ojota and Oshodi, among other points, connecting the buses to different parts of Lagos beyond the central parts of Lagos, covering even distant routes like Ajah. 

Riding on the buses was not just a delight, commuters could also surf the internet and listen to music while aboard, just as they could recharge their mobile phones through charging portals available on the buses.

While inaugurating one of the new BRT corridors, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu had announced the deployment of 550 additional mass transit buses as well as the launch of an e-ticketing system.

“We are unveiling 550 high and medium capacity buses, which will be immediately deployed for public use,” Sanwo-Olu said, describing the event as a milestone. “This event also formally inaugurates our upgraded e-ticketing system in fulfilment of our pledge.”

The successful integration of the more efficient and accountable automated fare collection system through the Cowry Card, an e-ticketing system that works on land, sea and soon, rail, was the most innovative accomplishment and a massive departure from what obtained in the past. With a swipe of the Cowry card, commuters can pay for their bus, train, and boat rides conveniently.

The system helped to check revenue leakages and enables LAMATA to accurately project, plan, budget and effectively advise the government on future moves, and investments, relying on this reliable revenue projection model. As at the end of 2022, over 2.2 million Cowry Cards had been registered and effectively put to use in the state.

ABOUT 15 years down the line, however, it appears is a gradual descent in the quality of services offered to commuters on the BRT scheme. In what is now becoming characteristic of some of the routes and the service, shortage of buses, enlistment of buses that are not in optimal condition, rickety buses, glitches with the e-payment system, by-passing of the validator machine by some bus operators, as well as an unruly ticketing and bus-operating team are some of the challenges dogging the initiative. While it is not out of place to witness long queues of commuters waiting to board at some of the bus terminals, some lack outright coordination and often witness breakout of fights.

The scheme has been observed to be having progressive shortfalls in operations due to numerous problems faced by government and the franchised operation companies.

And sadly so, concerned Lagosians have raised the alarm about the possible collapse of the scheme if urgent measures are not taken to salvage it. Ultimately, they fear the BRT scheme might go the way of the Lagos Municipal Transport Service (LMTS).

“The poor conditions of buses, among other service violations by operators, which the Lagos State government cited as the reason for cancelling the then LAGBUS-NURTW operation contract when the scheme just took off, have now returned fully under the current BRT-franchise scheme. Aside from some of the buses now looking rickety, especially on the Ikorodu route, you often find some of the buses dirty and unkempt,” Taofeek, a regular commuter on the scheme told The Guardian.

He also mentioned the racketeering and bypassing of validator machines by operators, which enables people without cowry cards access to the BRT buses, as one of the limitations.

Kelvin Ololade, a regular BRT passenger who commutes from Ikorodu to Oshodi, also noted that the scheme has been bastardised, adding that the scheme is no longer what it was when it was launched years ago by the Fashola administration. He listed part of the problems confronting the BRT operations to include lack of coordination by the operators and inadequate buses on various routes.

Recounting his experience, Oluwaseyi Banigbe bemoaned the frequent breakdowns of the buses lately, claiming that most of the buses now work in sub-optimal conditions. “When these mechanical breakdowns happen in the course of the journeys, there is no way the commuters can take back money spent on such trips since they would have paid using the cowry card. In some instances, when the drivers call for help from their office, before help comes, most of the passengers would have found alternatives,” Banigbe said.

She also called for a crack-down on operators who bypass the validator machine to allow commuters without the cowry cards access to the buses for instant financial gratification. “These people are even granted access into the buses without joining the queues,” she added.

For another commuter, Angela Adedayo, the dirty state of the buses, at times, is what calls for worry. “Some of the BRT buses now look unkempt with most of the seats in sorry states. In some of the buses, most of the charging ports, which served passengers in charging their mobile phones while on the move, are no longer functional. Lagosians deserve nothing but a better, clean and efficient bus service system,” she said.

Adedayo stressed the need for the state government to review the contract of the franchise operators who are performing below expectation. Another commuter, Kikelomo Akintunde disclosed that a major setback is the glitches she experiences in a bid to recharge her BRT card online. “There was a day I was almost moved to tears because of the embarrassment it brought me. I had just finished transferring funds to my wallet, only to be told by a bus operator that I had no funds in my card.”

She called on the operators to urgently work on the process of transferring to wallet and make it seamless and simple to use for all the BRT users.  Speaking on the state of some of the BRT facilities at major bus stops, Akintunde disclosed that many of the public facilities were now shadows of what they used to be as they are not well maintained.

She observed that when the BRT newly started, there were more than enough seats at terminals. “Today, commuters spend hours on queue, standing and waiting to get on buses to their various destinations.”

When The Guardian visited some of the major terminals, it was observed that a lot of the iron seats that dotted the terminal and used to serve commuters were in states of disrepair. Also, some of the toilet facilities and water system were not working effectively.

A visit to some of the scheme’s depots across the city also revealed a good number of the buses that are no longer functional and are now being cannibalized as sources of spare parts for the few functioning ones.

Dean, School of Transport and Logistics, Lagos State University (LASU), Prof. Samuel Odewumi, explained that if one bus is used to cannibalise others, it is an indication that the business is not thriving and it is going down. He opined that the government should make a decision that will balance public service and sustainability.

The university don noted that government should allow more operators (franschise) to operate on the BRT corridors and also allow them charge economy rate. He pointed out that though the operator has invested heavily in the business and also tried to sustain the momentum, government should dialogue with them and proffer lasting solutions that will be helpful to all the stakeholders, especially the government, operator and the commuters in sustaining the scheme.

He further noted that for the BRT service to survive, government needs to hands off the collection of adverts usually placed at the BRT Bus Stops and allow the operator use proceeds from that to subsidise their operations.

When The Guardian called the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Ministry of Transportation to seek clarifications and know the position of the ministry on some of the developments and complaints about the BRT scheme, she directed the correspondent to the Public Relations Officer of the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA), who also declined to make comments on the issue.

However, one of the BRT franschise owners, Mr. Fola Tinubu, said there were several ways to look into the issue. According to him, you cannot add the social responsibility of a government to the expectations from a private company, which is what has been happening in BRT Scheme.

“For many years, I have continued to say that there is the need for dialogue among the government, private sector players and the commuters, so we could come out with workable solution for everybody but the political will needs to be there,” Tinubu said.

He disclosed that the Nigeria’s salary structure is too low and commuters spend between 50 per cent to 75 per cent of their income on public transportation, and operators cannot continue to increase fares on the low-income wages of the country. He stated that public transportation is the backbone of any growing economy and if the desire is a world-class service, it must be paid for to guarantee sustainability.

“If we want to charge the full cost of transportation, it will no longer be affordable for the common man and when this happens, it is no longer public transportation,” he added.

He pointed out that public transportation required a lot of investment and if the system cannot guarantee businesses in terms of profit, no investor would want to lose or not break even. “I can tell you for a fact that for the seven years that we have been running the business, we have not made any profit,” he said. He warned that the BRT scheme should not suffer the same fate that bedeviled the LMTS and other similar projects in the past.

“There was the LMTS and others before now and they all disappeared. The same thing that happened to them is actually what is happening to BRT now. I have been saying it for the past six years or so, that we must put this on a sustainable business footing.”

Tinubu further stated that the reason the government-owned transport system failed was because they kept the fare artificially low to make people happy for the purpose of political gains and did not bridge the gap. “The expenses keep going up. If the BRT continues this way, it will eventually disappear.”

He noted that world-class transportation services such as the ones in Britain, China, the United States as well as the United Arab Emirates have an element of subsidy in their plans.

“The only one I know that government does not write a cheque for is the Hong Kong system. But what they do is that they give the right of way to the public transport system. They put advert on the right of way and the revenue from the advert goes into subsidising the transport system. But here, we cannot even have the adverts, we only have it on our own buses.”

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