Published On: Thu, Jun 4th, 2015

Public transport would continue to be bad if  government does not subsidize it — Otunola

 

‘Biodun Otunola is the CEO of Project Planet Limited. Under his leadership, his company has been involved in several public transport development projects in Africa. In this interview with UCHECHUKWU DOMINIC, he explains that government should play a pivotal role in public transport system in Nigeria.

Congratulations on the award you recently got at the Nigeria rising award.
Thank you very much.

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Your company, Planet Project has won several awards including international ones. How have you been able to sustain the momentum needed to achieve these successes?
First of all, we must give all glory to God who has been helping us. God has been our inspiration and he is the one giving us the ideas. Having said this, a lot of hard work has also brought us this far. The problem of public transport in Africa is quite huge and our leaders seem not to be paying attention to it. So because the problem exists and is visible to all, we are coming up with solutions.
Over the years one of the things that would shock you is that an average Nigeria spends up to 60% to 70% of his income on transport. The reason is not farfetched. If you look at Lagos for instance, most of the people that are low income earners are the people that live the farthest from the city centre. Imagine someone who works as a cleaner living in Ikorodu and coming to work at Victoria Island. Daily commuting could cost such a person about N1000 per day and you wonder how much the person is being paid per month. This is part of the problem we need to tackle.

 

 
Secondly, what kind of transportation system does this low income earner use? We are talking of rickety buses and a disorganized transportation system. So this person is more or less spending a high percentage of his income to give himself an uncomfortable transportation system that also impacts negatively on his health, living condition and quality of life. It’s so bad now that even at the level of the rich, they also suffer from traffic congestion as a result of poor transportation system. They spend so much money to acquire big cars for comfort sake but they end up in horrible traffic congestion.
Today, you see people who have to wake up a one year old baby at 4.00am, because they need to go to work early, and take care of the baby before leaving home. In Lagos, the fear of the Traffic, especially on the third mainland bridge is the beginning of wisdom. There’s traffic everywhere and this is a big problem that we see as an opportunity and which we are trying to address.

 

Road transportation business is huge all over the world and it generates lots of revenue for a country. Why hasn’t the Nigeria government taken advantage of this sector of the economy?
Well, let me clarify something, there’s a difference between the various classes of road transportation system that we have. The one that we deal with which is the most critical one for everybody is what we call public transport. In other part of the world it is called urban transport. This class of road transportation system affects our day to day activities. That is the one that takes you from your house to work, to school, to church, to health centres, to recreational services and so on.

 

 
The second class of road transport system is the inter-city or out-of-station transport. That is not very frequent. If you ask many people when last they travelled out of Lagos, the answer would be, “not often!” But the one we are talking about now is the one that affects everyone daily. That’s the one that drains your pocket, affect your health, and affects your safety and security. In other parts of the world, it is seen as a social service like health and education and hence, it is heavily subsidized. It must be accessible, it must be reliable, it must be comfortable and it must be affordable. Those four criteria have to be met for you to talk of a good public transport system. In Nigeria, the problem is multi-faceted.

 
Over the years, emphasis has been made more on building roads. That was what was done in the 60sand in the 70s within the cities. But today, all our city roads are congested especially in the urban areas. Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Port Harcourt and major cities in the country are all congested. So we need a new strategy to deal with this problem. Part of the new strategy therefore, is for government to begin to redesign these cities. We have to get people to switch from cars onto bus and rail transport that meet the four criteria I earlier mentioned. If we don’t achieve that, we can’t get results. Our governments over the years are more interested in building roads than in high quality public transport system. The more roads you build, the more people buy cars and fill it up, so it is a vicious circle.
Look at Lagos, we had first, second and third mainland bridges and now we are talking about fourth main land bridge. Very soon, you would hear, fifth mainland and maybe sixth and seventh mainland bridges. Even the new Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge is getting congested, ditto the Lekki –Epe expressway.

 
Transport is always in equilibrium. When you get to a particular city, the type of transport system you find there is what the market can pay for and what the people can afford. So if you come to Lagos and find danfo and molue, that is what the people can afford. But all over the world, people must be provided with good road transportation services. For these to be achieved, the government must take it as its responsibility. Just like health and education, In other part of the world, public transport is seen as a social service which is the government’s responsibility and duty. In Nigeria, the government has left that responsibility to the hands of transporters and transport unions. That is the state where we find ourselves.

 
So the fundamental issue is that government has to first of all recognize this as their responsibility, just like health and education. A government owes it as a duty for their people to travel on a daily basis in a decent, comfortable, reliable, accessible and affordable means of public transportation. That is the first premise. So when you establish that premise the next premise would now be, what kind of transport system do you need? So you can go for bus, metro, railways, light rail and so on. These are all the options you can consider within the city like it’s done abroad.
People are buying more cars everyday and the city is getting more choked up. Even, no matter how rich you are, in Lagos you have to be afraid of traffic. It’s as bad as that. Let me also warn, transport is the only thing that connects all of us. In Nigeria, everybody is a government of his own – you hire your own security, you provide your own electricity, you provide your own water and other social amenities – but the only thing that connects everybody is road transport because everybody has to get on the road. So how we manage these roads determines to a large extent our quality of life.

 
A place where you are supposed to spend one hour, you are spending three hours. It’s not healthy for the economy. So this is part of the problem that we have seen. So essentially, the government needs to have a change of attitude and take a clue from what other countries of the world are doing. In London today when you buy a ticket, you have 60% subsidy on it. That’s why you see their buses are very neat and clean because government takes active interest in it. They see it as their responsibility and set the standard for the kind of public transport their people deserve.

So you are saying public transport system should be public-private driven.
Yes, it is public-private all over the world but the truth is that government takes ownership, government drives the process, and government sets the standard. There’s no reason why our people should be moving in buses without air conditioners in Nigeria. Government must do everything to stop its people from moving in rickety buses and to do this they have to pay the difference. So not only would the government buy buses, they would also pay the subsidy.
We are doing a project in Lokoja now and before we started this project, on the average transport fare in Lokoja was N150. In fact what shocked me was that in Lokoja, transport fare from a place called Felele to Barracks,  a distance of about 17 kilometres is N150, meanwhile in Lagos from Mile 12 to Marina, a distance of about 22kilometres cost N120. So how can people in Lokoja be paying more than the people in Lagos? In fact, Lokoja’s economy is not up to 5% of Lagos economy and the economic parity is not there.

 
What the taxi people were doing was to break the journey into three and make you pay N50 for each part of the journey. Before you get to your destination, you would have spent about N150 on transport. So when we explained these to the Governor and proposed to him to buy new buses and subsidize the fare, he agreed. He bought the buses and put them on the streets. Now we run the buses for them and in addition to that the bus operations are subsidized with N3.8million naira per month. So a journey that cost N150 was reduced to N50. When people saw this, they became happy and were amazed that something like that could happen.
Not only were they using brand new vehicles, people were no more jam-packed in a taxi anymore. That situation where you would find two people in the front seat and four at the back seat of a taxi became a thing of the past. Now they sit comfortably on the bus and with N100 in your hand, you are sure of going to and fro a journey. Before now, they spent N9000 a month but now they spend N3000.

 
This is one of the reasons why we have mass poverty in Nigeria. People are spending a large portion of their income on transport. Our leaders have not seen this as their responsibility. Around the world, cities devote huge budgets to public transport. In New-York it is $23billion a year. The Public transport system is one of the most powerful institutions that they have, with the New York Transport Agency being very huge. They have underground trains, they have buses, they have railways and they have many other means of public transport. I’m talking about high quality service transport system with air conditioners. We need to get to that level.
The Private sector has a role to play in this but government has to drive it and set the standards. They have to define the kind of transport system and the amount of transport fare the people should pay based on their income. Since the government sets minimum wage, they have to also set the parameters that determine the minimum wage. So instead of buying a bus of N900, 000 they can buy a bus from Brazil for a cost of N15million. Then they set the parameters. Now if the operators are supposed to set the bus fare at N300, the government can subsidize it by paying the difference and bringing the fare down to N50.

 
That’s what government around the world does and that is the way out for our current fuel subsidy issue as well. The current fuel subsidy issue is a transport issue and not fuel issue, because at the end of the day, once you increase fuel cost, transport cost goes up and hence the inflationary effect on the whole economy. Instead of government to subsidize petrol, which is consumption and can be manipulated or diverted, government should subsidize transport fare which is the service, and people can feel the direct impact of transport subsidy through reduction in transport fares.

 
It also costs less to subsidize transport rather than petrol. This is what is done all over the world, transport cost is subsidized and hence the reason there is no riot anytime there are increases in fuel price in the international market.

This kind of public transportation system in the name of BRT was introduced in Lagos and heralded by Lagosians but after a while the BRT buses started to reduce in numbers leaving many passengers stranded in bus terminals. For this reason, many people feel that the government can never get it right with public transport because over the years several administrations in Nigeria have tried to introduce public transport system but failed. Why is this so?
Well, first of all let me acknowledge one thing. Lagos State I think towers above other states in Nigeria in terms of investment in public transportation system. I’m aware of some of them; like the light rail that is being constructed around the Mile 2 – Marina axis. That’s a project of about $2billion. The BRT along Ikorodu is currently under construction and the project is worth about N30billion. So Lagos is doing a lot of investment but you see, it takes time for all those things to come together. In London, it takes about 20 years to construct an underground rail. In Nigeria, Lagos is far ahead and moving very fast. I think the fundamental problem is lack of government policy.
Government itself has not accepted that it is its responsibility to provide transport and this is a big problem. Take a look at education for instance, government has its own school which they fund and they tell you it’s free. But we all know it’s not free because someone is paying for it. It may be free to the public but the government is paying for it. What we actually need is a strong transport policy that would specify the type of transport system we want and how much people would pay for it. It goes under the social services of the government.

 
Public transport service would always go bad unless there is subsidy. There are only two things the government can do, it’s either they subsidize the fare so the operators can feel less stress or they allow operators to charge commercial price. Even the commercial price has a limit beyond which nobody would pay. In other countries they actually buy these buses and give them to operators like Transport for London (TFL) does in London. So they pay the operators per kilometers and as an operator you can decide to run 100 buses for the government and get paid for every kilometer travelled.
Your job as an operator is to hire drivers and run the buses on the route as scheduled. Until we see a government that will take it upon itself to say I have to be responsible for how my people go to work, to school and various places we will continue to remain where we are.

 

 

Some people feel that the road transport union workers are one of the forces impeding public transport. They say the huge revenue they make for the government and fat bribes they give to government officials, is responsible for the lack of serious and sincere interest by the government to invest in public transport.
That impression to me is not correct. I don’t want to think so. I won’t hold transport union responsible but the government. In other countries, you see prime ministers and mayors boarding trains and buses. This is because they have provided the same kind of transport system they can use for their citizens. So the problem isn’t the transport union because if you bring the brand new buses for the transport union to use, they will definitely use it. Government licensed these transport union, so they can also regulate their activities. They are just playing within the confines of what the system has provided.

 

 

So they are taking advantage of the loopholes in the system
No, they are just doing business like you and I, and because the system allows it, they play by the current transport standard that is not geared towards a high quality, affordable and sustainable transport system.

You earlier spoke about your project in Kogi State; can you give us an insight into other projects your company is involved in?
Yes, there’s a BRT project we are developing in Warri and that is going to be a flagship for us too because it’s going to change the face of Warri as a city and would place it in the map of BRT in the whole of Africa and even in the world. In fact, the whole world is waiting. The project was unveiled in Switzerland in 2013 by the Delta State Commissioner for transport on behalf of His Excellency, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan.
At the moment we are about 40% done, and it would be commissioned before the end of this year and people would see what public transport means. Everybody do not have to wake up and go to school or work in their private cars. It is insanity and we are all killing ourselves slowly without knowing by staying in traffic for hours.

 
Another thing we are also promoting in Nigeria is the idea of mega bus terminals. As a media person, you’ll notice that recently we’ve had a lot of bomb blasts in various parks like Nyanya Park, Gombe has had three and we’ve also had in Bauchi and Kano bus parks. If you ask yourself, you notice that there are no good bus parks in Nigeria. If you go abroad these things are iconic structures. If you go to Victoria Station in London, Grand Park in NewYork, Station in London you will find that these transport interchanges are iconic structures.

 

 
We don’t have that in Nigeria and that is why it is easy for someone to go and detonate bomb there. Our bus parks from Ojota in Lagos to Nyanya in Abuja to Abali Park in Port Harcourt are largely informal, insecure with no infrastructure at all. It would interest you to know that more than 50 million Nigerian use these parks everyday across the 36 states and Abuja and yet there is no government investment in these national strategic infrastructures daily by lots of Nigerians.
Compare this to the airports used by about twenty thousand Nigerian daily, for which the government has spent more than N100 billion in the past three years. But if you look at the impact of the Bus Parks, it is very huge, more than 50 million people a day, if these 50 million Nigerian spend N100 a day, we are looking at more than N5 billion a day business activities at these parks, which government can easily bring within the formal sector of the economy and make lots of revenue, especially in this season of low government revenues.

 

If government invests in Bus Parks across Nigeria, the impact would be huge because you would be touching direct lives of the people. So we are promoting this. We’ve done mega bus parks in Port Harcourt and we are currently doing a very big one along the expressway in Lokoja right now and also in Delta State.
We are also doing junction improvement which eases traffic. It’s not everywhere that you must build fly-overs. In most cases fly-over takes you to the next junction where everybody meets again. So because we understand urban transport so well, we do good junction improvement.

 

 

In urban traffic, there are two important things; number one is the pedestrian, and two is the junction. If you don’t get those two things right your urban road is going to be congested and non functional! Kudos to Governor Fashola who did a good job in Oshodi but if you still look at Oshodi today, it actually needs about 10metre walk ways on both sides with railings and the whole place would be free. Similarly, Lagos Island with the well-constructed road by Julius Berger, there is still so much congestion especially because of the very high vehicle –pedestrian interaction due largely to inadequate walkway provision!
But if you go to European cities, the story is different. In Oxford Street in London, one third of the entire right-of-way is road while the remaining two-third. Junction improvements in most cases work better, more efficient to solve junction problems.  It’s cheaper to improve junctions than building fly-overs. We are doing bus projects too not just in Nigeria but in other African countries.

 

 

The same problem we have here in Nigeria can also be found in other African countries. In fact five African countries have come to look at the Lagos BRT yet they cannot take off. So they need help. We are going to these countries to show them how to do this. The beauty of transport is that if you don’t have a local knowledge you can’t solve them. A lot of money has gone into investments in studies and planning of public transport in Nigeria in the past 20 years but there’s no progress safe for Lagos. Everything usually ends up in studies, manuals and reports at the government ministries.

 

That’s the area where we come in. We provide end to end solutions from Studies, Concepts, Design to Construction and Operations and Maintenance (O&M). In recognition of our strides and contributions to the development of urban transportation in Africa, Planet Projects Limited (PPL), won the African Award for Integrated Mobility by the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), at the 60th Congress of UITP, in Geneva, Switzerland, held from May 25 to May 29, 2013. The congress had the participation of 2,097 delegates from 78 countries. During the Award Ceremony, the President of UITP, Ousmane THIAM said that Planet Projects came top for its innovative approach to urban transport development and transport infrastructure delivery which have been evidenced across Nigeria.

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