MobilityWalkingAddis Ababa: Lessons in Multi-modal Transport from an African Capital

Addis Ababa: Lessons in Multi-modal Transport from an African Capital

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

America and Europe are awash with cities putting multi-modal transport at the forefront of cities’ policy and design. The voice of Africa doesn’t feel so prominent, but that’s misleading: Addis Ababa’s progressive transport plans are proof that the continent is far from lagging. We spoke with Iman Abubaker from the World Resource Institute (WRI), and Carly Gilbert-Patrick of UN Environment to find out more.

Addis Ababa is home to 17% of Ethiopia’s urban population. It’s growing rapidly, having doubled in under 35 years.[1] As the city swells, cooperation between authorities and international development agencies aim to keep on top of the grim concoction of transport-inspired problems that balloon with it: pollution, congestion, and vehicle-related fatalities. But how can these be so noteworthy in a city where the average journey is just 3.3 km and four-fifths of the population travel by walking and public transport?

Twisted Statistics – How Numbers Hide the Truth

Addis’ top dogs could easily be self-congratulatory: 55% of people walk, 60% of trips are made on foot; numbers to make many cities green with envy. But instead, Ethiopia’s capital is forging ahead with integrated and walking and cycling solutions.

Carly Gilbert-Patrick, global lead for UN Environment’s Share the Road programme, throws light on it: “You don’t necessarily want an 80% modal share for walking, it can be a sign that people are walking for far too long to reach school, home or work.”

It’s about choice: if people want to walk extended distances – for leisure, say – that’s fine. But if it takes 2 hours to reach the nearest healthcare centre, it’s too far. If one must navigate miles around a superhighway which cuts through the short distance between home and the local market, high walking rates are tarnished with the stench of inconvenience. The antithesis of 15-minute cities.

(Exhaust) Pipe Dreams – The Issues in Addis

Ethiopia is a low-income country. In the past, those who used public transport were met by under-resourced and overcrowded transit lines. More the issue now is making it accessible and convenient, which requires better management and optimisation.

So maybe it’s no surprise that cars, which most people cannot afford, represent wealth and status. “It’s an asset. People would go to drastic measures and make sacrifices to buy a car”, Iman Abubaker, who works alongside the Bloomberg initiative for global road safety as Urban Mobility Project Manager, told us.

Just 15% of the city drives, but up to 80% of road traffic injuries and deaths are inflicted on pedestrians: 60% occur at crossings, where walkers find themselves in motor-territory. “It just means that we don’t have the right infrastructure in place to really protect them and improve their access”, adds Iman.

She explains how this was presented to Addis’ leaders by mapping public transport and reviewing crash hotspot and blackspot analyses. Using road safety and NMT data, and accessibility analysis, “it was evident that the NMT infrastructure needed work”. The difference between the inner city and the peripheries especially came as a surprise to decision-makers. But to their credit, they acted. Crash data shows a marked improvement.

Transit needed to be the more attractive option, so they came up with a plan.

Intelligent Design

In 2017, the Safe Intersections Program (SIP) launched, making crossings safer. Iman reflects on the kind of protective measures injected into the cityscape of late: “Tightening the intersections, widening the curbs, reducing the crossing distance, really looking at the engineering perspective.” The Road Safety Strategy has been successful in making roads and intersections safer for the walking majority. Addis has flipped the hierarchy of road use in favour of pedestrians. Roads are being designed to prioritise space for walkers, not cars, with connecting footpaths, safe waiting refuges, and strictly enforced speed controls notable measures. Engineers even account for human error in their city designs, further avoiding impacts and accidents.

Alongside ubiquitous measures such as the street-greening, holistic installations are integral to the city’s Master Plan: an ambitious long-term city-wide strategy tackling everything from employment to welfare, taxation, housing, even begging. And, importantly, infrastructure for disabled citizens. Iman explains how “it’s looking at putting in tactiles, it’s looking at putting in ramps. And it’s really looking at the right sort of design or the best practices and really improving the universal accessibility”. Is it just lip service, or does it truly work?

Combining transport: pedestrian crossing leading to an LRT station
Image credit: Flickr / ITDP Africa

Putting People First

Good intentions and reality do not always correlate: Carly points out that it’s easy to fall into the same old traps, with many cities (often with development funding) continuing to build new pedestrian bridges, despite “every design standard out there telling you not to in most circumstances,” adding pedestrian bridges, “are not even for pedestrians, they should be called ‘car bridges’, because they’re there to make life easier for cars.”

The WRI and UN Environment have found champions within administrations open to crafting models that suit the majority of their citizens. For Ethiopia it’s the Minister of Transport. After all, we need political willpower on our side if we are going to action significant change. Open dialogue, even if it starts as conflict, provides a means to an end. In Addis, it worked.

Crossings installed flush with roads, coupled with narrower roads and traffic islands are known to inconvenience drivers, but they ‘amplify the awesome’ of the walking experience. “People can wait if they’re in a car. They’re relaxing, they’re safe, they’re protected, so they could wait five more minutes for pedestrians to cross,” reassured Iman. “We don’t need to burden pedestrians more by having to cross the bridge.” The hope is that cars will become less desirable, no longer the most convenient mode to get around. We need to allow time for this change in mindset to take hold.

Striving for comfort and a pedestrianised network that meets all of Addis’ walking and rolling needs has led to a mandate for paths to be built a minimum of 3 m wide. But the city recognises something incredibly important: walking should not be viewed in isolation.

The Benefit of a Multi-Modal Approach

Formally, the problem was that much of Addis Ababa’s public transport was difficult or unsafe to access. “It’s just not located in the right place, or the schedules are not looking at where people need it and where people need to go”, reported Iman. Pedestrians waste a lot of time trying to reach their destinations.

Now good design is encouraging dense hubs to grow up along the city’s transit corridors:

When you’re designing bus rapid transit systems, you’re designing it for pedestrians, you want to shorten their journeys by enabling them to use the bus. It’s often seen that walking and cycling are the perfect partnership – but it’s actually walking and public transport. If they can walk for 20 minutes and hop on the bus, and then get to work within 30–40 minutes, that’s what you’re looking for.

Carly Gilbert-Patrick

More than half of all streets in Addis’ main centres, such as the buzzing economic area of Piazza, are now ringfenced for NMT – walking, cycling, greenways. With 15 more Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors planned, and an extension of the Light Rail Transit underway – that will see it almost double to 64 km. Gaps in implementation have slowed impact, but accessibility and connectivity are starting to improve. 56.1% of locals take the LRT for work. Both systems connect to bustling community hubs, for example, Africa’s largest open-air market, Merkato. These spaces are important for trade, employment, leisure, relationships. An integrated transit network, including more traditional and environmentally sound animal-powered transport and pushcarts, is adding resilience to Addis’ rich social and urban tapestry.

Animals as transport at a market in Addis Ababa
Image credit: Unsplash / Erik Hathaway

The Master Plan – or Integrated Development Plan, 2014-2038 – and its companion transport strategy developed with the city’s Transport Bureau, complimented by the cities walking and cycling policy, underlies Addis Ababa’s approach to a safe and integrated multi-modal future. Naturally, cycling features heavily.

Breaking the Wheel – Changing Cycling Habits

Ethiopia doesn’t shy away from a challenge, and the Master Plan has a strong focus on equity.

Generally speaking, women are typically more risk-averse, hence lower cycling participatory rates in the city. The country’s 2019-28 NMT strategy is prioritising gender parity and aims for women to represent half of all cyclists by 2028. First, they need somewhere to pedal, and the features that make it safe. Cue laying down 200 km of new dedicated bike routes, plus improved lighting, barriers, and visibility.

But what is the state of cycling in Addis now?

Generally in Africa, there are connotations of cycling as a mode for the poor. This poses a challenge. Folks need a culture change.

We know there are cyclists in the city, but it’s usually for leisure purposes or sporting and not really as a mode of transport.

Iman Abubaker

Menged Le Sew – the city’s monthly car-free day – has kicked things off nicely.

As we’ve seen in Trondheim, where they removed parking spaces to undermine driving rates, and in the enforced pedestrianisation of city centres like Pontevedra, the stick approach is sometimes more effective than the carrot. Addis has learnt from opting for the light-touch approach.

We know from the 2020 NMT strategy that 31% of PT users walk at either end of their transit trip. The Lebu-Jemo cycling corridor was opened to connect residential areas with public transport hubs. It promised to improve last-mile connectivity and had huge potential to boost localised economic activity.

The biggest gap was the availability of cycles. Private bike businesses were encouraged to set up shop but felt it was too risky, citing bike theft as the primary concern if renting them out – especially a problem as there’s no way to make renters liable for the loss.

Even private bike owners are deterred as facilities never materialised: they can’t take their bikes on onwards journeys and have no secure bike parks to leave them in. It wasn’t the boost to biking that was intended.

Instead, the corridor is used by three-wheel auto rickshaws and pedestrians instead. Cars are encroaching on the space for parking, further deterring cyclists.

The lesson here is that incentives and reassurances should be offered to service providers to build trust. Addis has made commendable inroads by investing in cycling infrastructure and it should be noted that the city is attempting to plug the gaps in availability by incorporating bike share and rental programmes. As seen in Rwanda, scaling to a network level like this can drastically improve functionality.

Cycle path in Addis Ababa
Image credit: Flickr / ITDP Africa

Show Me the Money

It should be clear by now that Addis is a transforming city. Their NMT and transport networks are beginning to rival any self-respecting world city. But how is this funded?

The national government budget takes care of large infrastructure projects like the BRT and LRT, mostly channelled from loans and grants from development banks and donor community. At a city level, the devolved transport budget enables localised decisions, but development grants and loans from international banks play a significant part. However, they still mostly see the world through car-tinted glasses; there is more focus on traffic flow and car-oriented development than striving for change that’s good for all.

To make matters worse, as soon as there are delays and challenges with budgets. It’s the pedestrian infrastructure that is compromised and the poorest that suffer as a result. As Iman points out, in the past contractors “finished the carriageway and not the sidewalk”. Back to square one.

In the case of the shiny new LRT, lines were completed before the stations that served them. Pedestrians had to walk through mud to board trains. Geographical access was inbuilt, but access lagged behind. It was a valuable lesson: more should be done to ensure pedestrian facilities are fit for purpose and completed in time.

The funding exists but “the problem is it’s often not spent on the majority of users”, Carly is all too aware, adding “the amount of money being invested is never balanced compared to the number of people who are walking and cycling”. Frustrations are rife, as most of the money is spent on the 15% of people driving, and just 2% on those who walk. It takes “brave” leadership to reverse these fortunes. Again, it’s the charismatic leaders who take the helm. Banks, meanwhile, should start to incentivise complete infrastructure by making holistic solutions a condition of payment.

Review the Revenue

Rather than spending existing cash on crossovers and relying on development agencies to support smaller initiatives, some focus is on getting Addis to allocate funds appropriately.

Responsibility doesn’t all fall at the feet of the city administration, though. Iman notes that “there should be better coordination among all the donors and development agencies working on transportation in Addis, and more accountability and evaluation when projects are completed. Mistakes should not be repeated but rather offer a chance to improve”.

Willingness to embrace systemic change is a valuable attribute for any city serious about developing sustainable mobility.

The private sector, for example, is encouraged to aid the surge in bus provision via proposed tax breaks on vehicular imports.

Funding streams may also soon change to reflect a more people-friendly policy. Because 70% of Ethiopia’s vehicles are in Addis, this is where both the challenges are greatest, and enforcement is strongest – generating the most revenue. Iman spoke of discussions with allies at the Transport Bureau who were receptive to innovating revenue collection and distribution. Ideas included channelling traffic penalties and parking fines back into improving road safety measures and tackling urban mobility challenges.

Fines for on-street parking on arterial roads are already collected. Work is being done to properly implement and manage parking fees. Congestion charges could follow, but first relies on a robust and integrated public transport network being in place.

It isn’t about pitting cars against people. But Iman believes this kind of innovation is “something that we should invest in, that could really show how to improve cities”.

A City for the Future

Addis is still on its journey to becoming a multi-mobility utopia. It has made inroads, but urban sprawl poses an ongoing challenge. As Iman notes:

“You go out just maybe 20 minutes from the centre, and then it completely changes. In the peripheries, it takes 45 minutes to an hour to be able to access urban amenities or any sort of employment, health care.”

In some parts of Africa, people spend up to 40% of their income on mobility. A huge proportion! But there are about 15,000 minibuses in Addis Ababa, which provide affordable means to get around for many of its residents. With decent coverage, too, this empowers connectivity, and the government is aware enough of the city’s needs to add routes where needed. But these are semi-regulated, with changeable fares, routes, and timetables. In a developing city, this is proving unreliable. Citizens need a centralised, integrated, subsidised multi-modal network.

As Carly says, “I think, the sign of a good city is when your poorest and your richest are all happily using the same transport system”. If it’s built right, like Addis Ababa is managing to do, then it’s a dream that can be realised.

[1] Addis Ababa City Administration, Global Designing Cities Initiative, Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety, World Resources Institute (2018), Addis Ababa Non-Motorised Transport Strategy,

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