LAGOS(AFP) – It may not seem like an especially tough choice: spend six hours a day in choking road traffic getting to and from work, or take a ferry, skip the gridlock and cut the commute to 40 minutes, roundtrip?
Travelling by road in Nigeria’s sprawling economic capital of Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city, can be torturous, with “go-slows” (local slang for traffic) often turning a two-kilometre journey into an hour-long slog.
The lagoon that connects the densely populated mainland to the city’s islands where many work offers an alternative travel option, but for some, ferries are too costly, unreliable and dangerous.
The Lagos state government is trying to change that through measures designed to boost the number of passenger boats in operation while reducing the vehicles on the mega-city’s congested routes.
There are signs the strategy is working.
“It will save me fuel, it will save me time and it will save me other stress,” said Everest Agharesa while seated on a boat at the mainland jetty of Apapa, a lifejacket slipped over his suit.
As the real estate agent scrolled through e-mails on his Blackberry, he said he had just left a meeting and needed to get back to his office on Lagos Island, the city’s historic business hub.
– ‘Now I can play with my children’ –
Travelling between the mainland and the islands typically involves battling gridlock on one of the city’s notorious bridges, including The Third Mainland Bridge, which, at 10 kilometres (six miles), is Africa’s longest.
It has become a key artery for Lagosians since opening in 1991, but the population was much smaller then.
Now the city’s road network can hardly cope with its 15 million people, forcing officials to consider a range of solutions including new roads, a light rail network and an expanded ferry service.
Yinka Marinho, who left his job in the oil sector to head the Lagos State Water Authority, said ferry travel is becoming ever more popular.
“When I came two years ago, only 200,000 or 300,000 people were taking the boat every month. Today, we estimate that at least 1.3 million” are using ferries, he said.
Companies looking to enter the sector face a number of obstacles, notably including a lack of properly constructed jetties.
“We are trying to make the waterways more attractive to operators,” Marinho said.
Another issue is that the city does not yet have a comprehensive, reliable ferry service.
Currently, the sector consists of roughly 70 boats, individually owned by small businessmen in an informal set-up that is unpredictable and raises security concerns.
Among those who said he felt uneasy about water travel was Ezekiel Adewole, who works at a bank and complained about the cost, which increases at night.
He said he pays 600 naira (three euros, $3.95) in the morning and up to 800 naira after sundown.
Prices vary — and, in typically Nigerian fashion, are often negotiable — but many said the ferries were generally more expensive than minibuses, thousands of which snake through Lagos each day, often overloaded with passengers.
Seated on a boat at the Oniru jetty, Adewole confessed that although he did not feel safe when travelling by water, avoiding road traffic was extremely appealing.
Furthermore, security was out of his control, he said: “We put everything in the hands of God.”
Youssouf, a 42-year-old consultant who did not want to give his family name, said he hardly saw his children during the week because of his 40-kilometre (25-mile) commute from the mainland neighbourhood of Ikorodu to Victoria Island.
“Before, with my personal car, I used to leave at 4:30 am, and at night I was arriving at 11:00 pm,” he said.
His commute has been shaved to 40 minutes roundtrip thanks to the ferry.
“Now I can play with my children in the morning and even at night,” he said. “I can live a normal life!”