Focus: Lagos waterways

Waterway to Go

May. 12, 2019

As Africa's largest city continues to grow, officials look to waterways to ease chronic traffic congestion on Lagos' roads and highways.

Four out of 10 cars in Nigeria are registered in Lagos, a city of more than 21 million inhabitants that recently surpassed Cairo to become the largest urban area on the African continent. Lagos is facing unprecedented growth with a population projected to double by 2030, yet transportation infrastructure has not kept pace in serving the ever-increasing number of drivers.

Most Lagos residents continue to rely on automobiles to get around the city, causing traffic jams that snarl highways and inhibit economic activity in the booming commercial center. The congestion is primarily caused by the city's geography, which is composed of several land masses separated by water, as well as fuel subsidies that have made car ownership affordable for low-wage workers. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of registered vehicles rose from 27,000 to 230,000, creating chronic problems for the city's roadways, and now officials are looking to the surrounding waterways to relieve some of the congestion before it's too late.

On August 30, 2018, Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode commissioned a modern ferry terminal and new headquarters for the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LAWSA), saying no efforts would be spared to harness the potential of water transportation in relieving residents from the daily drudgery of traffic. Ambode also commissioned a multi-level car park adjacent to the terminal to accommodate commuters, who will soon benefit from seven new passenger ferries set to start operating along routes between the city's northern districts and its financial center on Victoria Island.
Though many steps remain to be taken in expanding water transportation options in Lagos, including the dredging of shallow areas and the removal of the seasonal plant species and the pollution blocking certain routes, officials agree the city's ferry sector is under-developed and could hold the key to relieving long-standing traffic issues.
Waterways occupy 25% of the city's surface but are currently used for less than 2% of transportation. Taking advantages of Lagos' undeveloped water resources could prove particularly beneficial for short distance routes between the port area of Apapa and Victoria Island, which are separated by a narrow lagoon, but traveling between the two usually requires two hours or more by road.

Even long-distance commutes are dramatically shortened by the many ferry services in the city. For example, a ferry trip between Ikorodu and Victoria Island takes 25-30 minutes, which is significantly faster and more reliable than navigating the 40km of roads that separate the destinations.

Historically, Lagos' waterways were used to transport a significant amount of goods and commuters, hitting their peak in the late 1980s when 3 million people per year travelled by boat. This number declined steeply as automobiles gained popularity, to the point where cargo freights have nearly ceased to exist in the Lagos Lagoon. Yet the tide is turning once again as commuters tired of sitting in traffic are increasingly taking ferries.

At a press conference in 2018, Damilola Emmanuel, the general manager of LASWA, said passenger numbers at the Ipakodo jetty in Ikorodu had recently increased from 1,000 to 2,000. “The next 10 years will be crucial to Lagos State because presently, the roads are becoming more congested daily," Emmanuel said at the event. “And in another three years, if we don't have the waterways opened up, we would likely have serious problems in Lagos."

International companies operating in Lagos, such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé, are also helping develop the city's water transportation by providing assistance in clearing plastic pollution from the lagoon, where floating trash has jammed boat engines. To get commuters comfortable with the idea of waterway transportation, the LASWA is working to implement safety regulations while ensuring all ferry lines are equipped with an adequate number of on-board life jackets. In recent decades, some Lagos residents have shown aversion to travelling by water, even when major road bridges were temporarily closed, due to safety concerns and prohibitive pricing.

Yet, city officials are confident such obstacles will be addressed as modern terminals and ferryboats are brought into operation. Over the last year, LASWA has licensed about 20 new ferry operators, many of which have already improved standards for ferry commuters, and competition is increasing between companies intent on drawing more customers to Lagos' waterways.