Addis Ababa Is Fighting to Avoid the Worst of COVID-19, But Transport Challenges Are Hampering Containment Efforts

COVID-19 has exposed systemic challenges in Addis Ababa’s transport sector. Photo by ITDP Africa/Flickr

Contrary to what many speculated, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ethiopia has been low so far. As of May 18, 2020, the Ministry of Health confirmed it had a total of 352 cases of COVID-19 of which 30% recovered and 1.4% died. The country has also avoided a full lockdown on travel – in part because its health care system can’t handle even a small number of cases. But Addis Ababa, the country’s bustling capital and showcase for the government’s response so far, has closed schools and taken steps to reduce normal levels of travel to impede the spread of the virus. And there’s much more to be done.

The risk of COVID-19 spreading in Addis Ababa and then to other cities and rural areas has significant socio-economic consequences for the country. According to World Bank estimations, a shock that would reduce household consumption by 10% would raise poverty by 6% and in urban areas push around 800,000 people below the poverty line, eliminating gains made on poverty between 2011 and 2016. It has never been more critical to address key elements of the transport network to keep transmission rates low and livelihoods afloat.

Mobilizing Transport Resources

A Multidisciplinary Emergency Response team, chaired by the Minister of Transport, is overseeing response plans for the nation. In addition to discussing the challenges and solutions of proposed interventions, the Ministry hosts weekly meetings where experts are invited to share experiences from other countries and advise on current strategies. This sort of platform strengthens communication, increases accountability and taps into a broader pool of knowledge.

More recently, the task force has explored options of digitizing transport related payment services to reduce contact, giving road priority to public transport, and promoting and expanding cycling (including accelerating some plans that were already in the pipeline).

In Addis Ababa, public buses are being held to half normal capacity and the city’s light rail system has cut occupancy to just a quarter of normal capacity. Public transport operators regularly sanitize vehicles and provide staff and passengers with masks, gloves and disinfectants. Everyone is now required to wear masks in public spaces.

A road rationing scheme was also introduced to help reduce the number of cars on the road and thus allow for increased frequency of public transport routes to make up for the lower capacity of each trip. But this plan was reversed after fierce pushback from private vehicle owners and the poor state of alternatives modes of transport.

Vulnerabilities Come to Light

On one hand it’s impressive how much has been done at both the national and city level in such a short amount of time, but COVID-19 has also demonstrated the fragility of Addis Ababa’s transport system and accentuated challenges that existed prior to the pandemic.

Restricting Travel Is Close to Impossible

Lack of integration between land use and urban transport has given rise to a huge number of unnecessary trips, high congestion, costly fuel consumption, pollution and low productivity. Activity centers, market areas and working places are not well connected with residential areas by public transport or well-developed road infrastructure.

As a result, major corridors are congested with private cars and commercial vehicles. Restricting essential travel is thus close to impossible, let alone non-essential travel, as basic services are not within walking distance for the vast majority of people. With an almost non-existent remote work culture and poor digital infrastructure, it is proving difficult for people to work from home, too.

A Patchwork Bus System Is Failing the Worst Off

Even with a range of public transport options that is unusual in many African cities, including an urban light rail system, 26,000 public buses, and over 15,000 minibuses, long queues for public transport are still a common sight during peak hours. Some 35% of the population uses public transport, accounting for 2.3 million daily trips. To protect the minibus industry and the millions whose livelihoods depend on it, tariffs for privately owned minibuses were doubled to compensate for the 50% reduction in passengers. For those that couldn’t afford to pay, public buses such as Sheger and Anbessa became the only option, as their fares stayed the same. As a result, public buses are being overwhelmed and the poorest are facing a choice between higher fares or more dangerous crowding.

Fare Systems Make Physical Distancing Untenable  

Reducing occupancy is one way to enforce physical distancing on public transport, and usually this is coupled with completely shifting to electronic payment systems. However, currently all fare payments in Addis Ababa are cash based, making contactless payment very difficult.

One bus operator retrofitted its buses with fareboxes and plastic sheets behind the driver to reduce risk of transmission from cash transactions. Yet it has not been easy scaling this to other operators. Minibus operators across Africa have long resisted the digitizing of payment systems, fearing any attempt to take cash out of operators’ hands.

The recently set up National Technology Task Force has been tasked with finding ways to increase digital transactions, recognizing that there are infrastructure and regulatory hurdles to overcome, including an internet penetration rate of just 18%.

Cycling Is Not Yet a Mature Alternative

As public transit is overwhelmed, COVID-19 has made it easier to make the case for cycling and debunks the myth that cycling is not for African cities. Cycling has become a preferred alternative to public transport and the number of cyclists has increased throughout the city.

Bi-directional cycle corridor launched as part of Addis Ababa’s NMT strategy and safe cycling program. Photo by Iman Abubaker/WRI Africa

But cities have to help change the perception that cycling is only for the poor and shift investments towards better walking and cycling facilities. While Addis Ababa has moved on cycling, it has moved slowly. It took two years for the Addis Ababa Safe Cycling Program to take off and to implement a single 3.5-kilometer cycling corridor.

The Ministry of Transport has expressed strong interest to leverage the current shift and further encourage cycling by supporting interventions that can make it more accessible and affordable for all.

Invest for Now – and the Future

Like some countries, decision-makers in Ethiopia have calculated that the economic and social chaos from disrupting millions of livelihoods will outweigh the public health impact of more drastic travel restrictions. In the words of the State Minister of Finance, “We cannot afford to leave a lasting shock on the economy because we have too much to lose.”

But a better transport system cannot only improve Addis Ababa and the country’s ability to respond immediately, but offers much to future generations.

Addis Ababa should use this opportunity to invest for now and the future:

  1. Focus on Resilience and the Vulnerable: Low-income residents and women face additional public transport challenges and COVID-19 responses have only exacerbated problems in some cases. It is critical to ensure these groups are protected and better served in future policy decisions. Efforts to expand cycling, for example, could help provide more alternative mobility options.
  2. Track and Open Up Transit Data: It’s hard to make effective and quick decisions with no data. Lack of data on transit systems presents a massive barrier for cities, transit users and operators hoping to navigate and plan more efficient, high-quality transit. Missing data infrastructure is a barrier to implementing sustainable transport systems in Addis Ababa, including proper analysis and planning for upgrading and integrating multi-modal systems, building passenger information systems and instituting better network management and fleet operations. Institutionalizing transit data collection in a standard, structured format as well as developing internal capacities to maintain and analyze transit data should be a core activity of transport authorities.
  3. Integrate Transport Systems: Once you have it, transit data can be leveraged to plan and optimize operations and move toward a more integrated transport system – one that allows riders to switch seamlessly between minibus, bus, rail, bike and more. Addis Ababa has potential to do this by mixing different forms of public transport with safe and accessible walking and cycling, in particular improving first/last mile connectivity. A special focus is needed on improving quality of service in the minibus and paratransit sectors, as well as finding ways to steer paratransit toward low-carbon pathways.
  4. Plan Land Use and Transport Together: Any interventions to improve the transport sector should be looked at in the context of land use planning, too. There’s only so much transport planning can to do improve access to jobs, education, health care and services of all kinds without this integrated thinking. Addis Ababa’s dismal walkability is testament to this challenge in the city. One way to bring this integration is through ensuring the city’s Sustainable Integrated Transport Development Plan is aligned with its City Structure Plan. To ensure these high-level policy documents translate into implementation on the ground, Addis Ababa should also develop its Local Development Plans following a people-centric approach that prioritizes access to basic services as their metric of success.

Strategic decisions now can bolster positive momentum that has been building for years. In 2018, Addis Ababa was able to stabilize its road safety death for the first time in eight years by reducing speeds, improving intersections, enhancing enforcement of speeding and drunk driving infractions, and vigorous road safety campaigns. The city introduced its first car-free day program in December 2018, reclaiming streets for people and demonstrating the importance of investing in walking and cycling for safer and more sustainable cities. With support from the Ministry of Transport and WRI, Addis Ababa is also taking steps to digitize its public transport system.

The response to COVID-19 has disrupted Addis Ababa, but also shown that many of its long-term efforts to improve are in fact headed in the right direction. Let this unprecedented challenge be a call to action to accelerate change and focus anew on strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable.

Iman Abubaker is a Health and Road Safety Project Coordinator for WRI Africa Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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