Addis Ababa’s light rail

A couple of years ago there was a viral video doing the rounds that showed a traffic junction in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Several lanes of traffic converge with no traffic lights, and then negotiate their way as best they can. It’s presented as comedy, but it’s hard not to wince at the danger, especially when you see the pedestrians weaving through the chaos.

Cars in Africa are a problem, for two main reasons. Firstly, only the richest can afford a car, so spending on roads benefits the wealthiest most. Roads take up land, and people may or may not be compensated for the loss their land or homes. Communities can end up bisected. Since money is tight, authorities cut corners by building roads without pedestrian crossings or bridges. When accidents happen, the richest can afford a bribe, and the poorest can’t afford a hospital. Connecting towns and villages is vital for development, but roads can also be a major injustice, and development that serves the poor needs to look beyond private motoring.

Secondly, roads also lock African cities into a model of transport that is fundamentally unsustainable. Large parts of many developing world cities are unplanned, and they are gradually being organised as services are installed. If they are formalised around the idea of motor transport, it will be very hard to go back and put in more sustainable alternatives later. Far better to leapfrog the private car, certainly the oil powered variety, and build sustainable communities around light rail or trams from the beginning.

So here’s a more positive video from Addis Ababa, clearly demonstrating a better way. The city has built Sub-Saharan Africa’s first urban light rail service. The first trains ran in 2015, with new stations added in 2016. This addresses both of those key problems. It’s cheaper than local buses and taxis, so it’s accessible to the poor. And as an all electric service in a country that’s pursuing renewable energy, it’s much better for the environment.

Ethiopia is, if you remember, one of the handful of countries aiming for carbon neutrality. Its twin goals to be a middle income country and a low carbon one make it a real place to watch and learn from – so there will be more on Ethiopia tomorrow.


    1. Yes. I grew up in Madagascar, and when I was a child that was normal and Britain was weird. I was foreign of course, but I do have something of an inside perspective on Africa too.

      I think Ethiopia’s response to climate change is one of the most inspirational of any country in the world, and I want to champion that. If you think I’m getting the tone of my posts wrong, then please do let me know.

        1. Thanks for mentioning it! You’ve prompted me to read the post back and I’ve made a couple of edits. I need my readers to keep me sharp, and if I ever slip into being patronising or disrespectful of other countries, I want them to point it out!

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