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The Pedestrian's Plight: Walking as an inconvenient mobility option in Abuja

Mohammed Lawal Shaibu

In Abuja, Nigeria's capital, walking is a common mode of transportation, yet the city's design and policies make it inconvenient and unsafe for pedestrians, particularly for marginalized groups like the poor, disabled, elderly, and children. The city's car-centric planning, including separate land use zones and limited public transportation, forces residents to rely on cars to access essential services. To improve walkability, Abuja must prioritize mixed land use, increase intersection density, establish functional public transit, enhance streetscapes, and enact pedestrian-friendly policies. Understanding the factors affecting walkability, such as land use, urban compactness, circulation, public transit, streetscape, and management policies, is crucial. Implementing measures to enhance walkability not only improves urban mobility but also promotes equity and inclusivity. Despite its challenges, Abuja has the potential to become more walkable through proactive urban planning, policy enforcement, and community engagement, ultimately leading to a more sustainable and inclusive city.

Like many other African cities, walking is a primary mode of transport for most trips in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. However, the conditions for walking are inconvenient due to the character or state of the city’s land use plan, urban compactness, circulation plan, streetscape, and urban management policies. This excludes social groups such as the poor, disabled, aged, and children from enjoying urban mobility and requires urban citizens to own or use a car to fully access their rights to the city.

In order to enhance walking conditions, the city needs to reduce its car dependency by addressing the factors that improve walkability. These include embracing mixed-uses for urban compactness and diversity as opposed to separating residential from non-residential land uses, promoting high intersection densities to reduce travel distances and offer multiple route choice, ensuring functionality in public transportation, enhancing the quality of the street, and introducing pedestrian-friendly urban policies. Research-based efforts to emphasise the urgent need for inclusive and sustainable urban mobility in Abuja should be echoed and applied in practice to improve the lives of people who live and work in the city.

Aerial landscape view of Abuja City Business District, by Tayvay on shutterstock_1439458676

"Walking, but not walkable: just another African city."

Before the development of Abuja, every city that existed in Nigeria had been formed – even as a small town – by socio-economic forces like markets and culture. As Bertaud (2018) puts it, such cities had their original order without design before the intervention of physical development plans.

Abuja is different; it is the first city in Nigeria that was developed from scratch in line with a master plan. Its original order followed a blueprint designed between 1976 and 1979. In the preface of his influential book, Cities for People, Gehl (2010) assert that city planning during that period (from the 1960s to 2000s) was problematic because it largely ignored the human scale, manifesting drastic consequences that would not be recognized until much later. Abuja’s planning was no different; it largely followed western car-centric patterns that require the urban population to own or use a car in order to fully interact with the city (Shaibu & Adebayo, 2022).

In African cities, over 70% of the urban population walk as a primary transport mode to access essential services, much higher than the global average of about 40% (UNEP & UNHSP, 2022). While this is often for a lack of choice, it implies that African cities are essentially walking cities despite the car-centric urban patterns in cities like Abuja and unfavourable and dangerous walking conditions in other Sub-Saharan African cities (Halias, 2020). It is therefore essential for such cities to rethink their approach to urban planning and management by prioritising walking (and cycling) as a convenient urban mobility option.

To do this, existing features and elements in Abuja that make walking inconvenient for the pedestrian  should be improved through urban planning decisions.  These have been repeatedly stated in different mediums to emphasise the urgent need to pursue sustainable urban mobility for the city  (Nigerian Urbanism, 2023; Shaibu, 2022; Shaibu & Adebayo, 2022).  

Aerial view of downtown Abuja, Nigeria, by Leandry Jieutsa from an image taken from Google Earth 2022

"Abuja must understand car-dependency and walkability, then drive towards the latter."

Car-dependency and walkability can be said to be inversely proportional. Quite a number of progressive cities have made efforts at reversing car dependency – a situation when reliance on private vehicles is high because it is the most favoured and convenient form of urban transport.

This is typically done through the introduction of multiple means, elements, or factors that support and encourage non-private car transport such as walking, cycling, and public transportation by making them safe and convenient, thus fostering walkability. To prioritise walking in Abuja, it is important that the key factors that determine its level of car-dependency or walkability are understood.

Dan Burden, one of the most popular figures in the walkability movement globally, listed eleven (11) factors that affect walkability; they are the location of facilities, adequacy of walkways, connectivity, street orientation, density, street speeds, aesthetics, land use, affordability, and neighbourhood schools (Burden, 1992). Several other authors have developed similar lists with overlapping elements that apply to Abuja. Lived and practical urban planning experience in the city, as well as literature review on walkability, suggest that the factors most relevant to Abuja are its land use plan, urban compactness, circulation plan, public transportation systems, urban streetscape design, and urban management laws/policies. 

Abuja’s land use plan distributes primary facilities for commerce (retail shops and neighbourhood markets), education (nursery, primary, and secondary schools), employment (office buildings), health (primary health centres and clinics), and recreation (children’s playgrounds and other parks) separately from residents, affecting proximity, connectedness, and urban compactness.

This makes residents have to travel longer distances to access the services within those facilities. Its circulation plan within districts mostly follow curvilinear and cul-de-sac patterns, while cross-intersections that offer more route choices and shorter walking distances are highly discouraged. The city has no functional public transport system in operation after a ban of mini-buses in 2013, a collapse of the replacement urban mass transport scheme with metro buses in 2018, and a discontinuation of the city’s only urban rail line in 2020 after just two functional years.

Most of the city’s streets lack elements like street furnishing, signages, and paved uninterrupted sidewalks that make up complete streets. Lastly, urban management policies such as the closure of pedestrian access to commercial lots as a traffic management solution worsens the pedestrian’s plight.

"Aiding the pedestrian’s plight is inclusive planning."

The separate distribution of facilities, curvilinear road network, absence of public transportation, incomplete streetscapes, and short-sighted urban policies in Abuja imply that the life of an urban resident who does not have or cannot use a private car is made infinitely more difficult. Such residents fall into four main social groups that are excluded from fully enjoying convenient urban mobility.

These are the poor (who cannot afford private cars), the disabled (who are wheelchair bound or blind and require help from able-bodied persons), the aged (who are not advised to drive after a certain age, could be wheelchair bound, and find harsh vehicle noises unfriendly), and children (who are not allowed to drive and at high risk of pedestrian injury and death). Enhancing walkability in Abuja is therefore about equity and inclusivity which are important sustainable development principles that accord high consideration to disadvantaged people.

Abuja, by macdavis-johnson on unsplash, November 2021

"Still, the people are walking. Help them walk better."

Despite the realities of Abuja, walking remains common for first and last mile intermodal transport especially in parts of the city where commercial motorcycles (okada) and tricycles (keke-NAPEP) are not allowed to operate. Abuja needs to intentionally enhance the highlighted factors that affect its walkability so as to make walking better by improving safety and convenience for pedestrians.

The primary way to achieve this as emphasised by Jacobs (1961) is to plan land uses within walking distances of each other through mixed uses for more compact and diverse cities. Abuja needs to ensure that detailed plans for districts yet to be developed have sufficient provision for mixed-use plots within neighbourhoods. The current practice of allowing different kinds of uses along a mixed-use corridor, yet separate uses for every plot along that corridor, is a flawed approach.

Instead, mixed use plots should allow different uses on different floor levels or different areas within one plot provided that the uses are compatible and complementary. Within already developed districts, particularly in Phase I of the city, efforts should be put towards densification through mutually beneficial partnerships between current property holders and housing developers as was historically applied in the Athens polikatoikias system (O'Sullivan, 2020).

Densification of Abuja’s urban core will present other socio-economic benefits such as improved tax base per land area, better utilisation of existing infrastructure, and allowance for community parks with potential for increased social capital.

It is also necessary to address the disinclination to cross-intersections in neighbourhood designs. The conventional grid street pattern that is prominent in cities like Barcelona, Chicago, and New York is considered to best facilitate walking because of its high intersection density which offers more route choices and shorter walking distances (Campoli, 2012).

With such a pattern, pedestrians are more likely to walk along a straight line, have three possible directions to go on approaching an intersection, and can permeate through city blocks more frequently. Radial circulation patterns in historic African towns and cities also have high intersection densities with primary streets running to the central palace, market, and religious centre and circling secondary streets that repeatedly cross the primary streets at increasing radii. However, as early as from the university level, urban and regional planning students are sternly taught to avoid cross-intersections in their plans and designs, an ideology that is carried on to professional practice.

The reason for this is that such intersections are considered to offer longer waiting time for vehicles to cross or turn and more possible vehicular conflict/collision points. Having established that they are better for pedestrians but arguably not as favourable to the vehicle, the discouragement of cross-intersections displays a glaring illustration of car-centric planning that pursues convenience for the vehicle at the expense of convenience for the pedestrian.

Furthermore, Abuja is in desperate need of public transportation systems to intermediate the pedestrian’s long-distance trips. This implies that residents can walk (or cycle) from their starting destination to a nearby public transport station (e.g., bus stop), use the system to commute, and then walk to their final destination. Public transport systems are beneficial for cities as they minimize traffic congestion, pollution emissions, and energy consumption per traveler.

Abuja, by oussama obeid on shutterstock, september 2023

The city has struggled with public transport over the past decade due to poor planning, maintenance, and financial constraints. Nonetheless, a lack of metro buses, at the very least, is inexcusable for a capital city of Abuja’s caliber. The city is currently dependent on private salon cars for public transport with overcrowding and physical struggle at popular pick-up/drop-off points.

Sidewalks and their accompanying elements such as signs, furniture, landscaped strips, etc. are crucial to the walking experience. They should not be perceived as future add-ons for streets where the common practice in Abuja, mostly outside the urban core, is to pave drive lanes first and await interventions years in future. This leaves a lot of streets lacking those crucial elements that encourage people to walk and make walking more pleasant. Moreso, where such sidewalks are existing, efforts should be made to address interruptions such as reckless car parking, obstructive driveways into plots, and open refuse dumping.

Lastly, policies that favour pedestrians and minimise car dependency should be enforced in the urban management of Abuja. Such policies should be derived following extensive and in-depth studies on the city’s physical and socio-economic urban context as well as case studies from successful policies in other cities around the world.

"Abuja has the capacity to foster walkability if it decides to."

Abuja is a unique African city because its development  originally followed a masterplan, albeit a car-centric one. Yet, it is similar to many other African cities with regards to the high levels of walking The paradox is that despite the city’s car-centric plan, walking remains a primary urban transport mode and, therefore, efforts towards enhancing the walking experience through improved convenience and safety for the pedestrian should be intensified.

The city’s land use plan, circulation plan, public transport functionality, streetscape, and urban management policies are critical factors that require intervention to reduce the city’s car-dependency and improve walkability.

The current pedestrian-unfriendly state of these factors should not portray Abuja in bad light.  They are instead an indication of the possibilities for more inclusive and sustainable urban mobility which can be achieved through an improvement in urban planning teaching, ideology, and practice as well as improved policy making at a city-level.

To achieve these, urban planners and other stakeholders in academia and practice should grab every opportunity to help the city (and its decision-makers)  understand where it falls short and why it needs to sit up. Resources such as the compilation of good practices that can inspire government actions and decisions to retain, protect, and enable people that walk and cycle in Africa are highly recommended (UNEP & UNHSP, 2022). What is Abuja waiting for?

Abuja, by oussama obeid on shutterstock

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