Lagos’ biking culture: Fad or necessity—a saving grace?
The Third Mainland Bridge, Africa’s second longest bridge, is eleven thousand, eight hundred (11,800) meters of winding asphalt that connects the Lagos Island to the Lagos Mainland. At night, the taillights of cars stuck in traffic give it the illusion of a red serpent snaking around the city.
Sometime in 2012, I spent two hours on the Third Mainland Bridge. It was a memorable traffic jam. I stood on my car’s door ledge and could see no end to the gridlock. It is Saturday 9, January 2016 and I have spent an hour on the Third Mainland Bridge. It will be the same tomorrow. Four years after, the traffic situation in Lagos has not gotten better or worse, it has just found ways to stay the same.
The new Governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode, came under fire for the worsening traffic situation under his watch. Lagos always had traffic gridlocks but now they had the added sidepiece of petty crime. The Governor swung into action by sacking the head of the state’s Traffic Authority, equipping the Police Force with helicopters, salon cars and motorcycles to make the rounds in traffic-crime prone areas. This has reduced incidents of smash-and-grab in traffic but long queues of cars moving at snail’s pace remain a constant in Lagos.
City dwellers have tried relocation, the rail system, chopper rentals, ferries and high-powered motor boats to combat the traffic menace. However the waterways are not safe, apartments in the commercial area – Lagos Island, are overpriced and the rail system is scant.
Commercial motorcyclists (popularly known as ‘okada’) once weaved through the densest traffic grids for a decent fee. A mix of fatal accidents, petty crimes and general lawlessness displayed by daredevil motorcyclists led to a ban on commercial motorcycle riders by the Babatunde Raji Fashola administration in 2013, thus, motorcycles below 200-cylinder capacity are not allowed on major roads in Lagos State.
High-powered motorcycles (250-cylinder capacity and above) were a fad for musicians and popularised by local pop icon, Charles Oputa. Recently, they have found a way into daily use. Courier and logistics companies jumpstarted the trend of using fast, branded motorcycles. Restaurants now use high-powered motorcycles for their deliveries. Last year, a logistics company ran a competition to reward commuters who identified their branded bikes in traffic and posted pictures on Instagram.
The barriers of entry to individuals driving a motorcycle were once many. There has been a shift in this as a few motorcycling training schools have sprung up in Lagos. These registered institutions train students on bike maintenance, riding and safety gear. What started as a fad and morphed into a corporate necessity might now be the only solution for Lagos commuters seeking to get to their destinations fast.
Busayo Kuti runs Pro Wheel, a motorcycle riding school. The school has churned out hundreds of bikers and dispatch riders. He is a trustee member of the Bikers Guild in Nigeria that advocates with the state government to provide an enabling environment for bikers. We met with Busayo at the National Stadium, Lagos, where his old students came with their bikes to meet up while new students took classes. “It started as something small with one Yamaha 125cc. Now, we have rented a space, registered the business and gotten more bikes. We have a partnership with a motorcycle company and our clients enjoy the benefits. Most of our students and recent graduates are corporate executives who ride daily to work now. It’s a trend that will continue as long as the traffic problem does not let up.”
Funfere Koroye, an Industrial Design and Product Development graduate, runs Kevlar Motorworks. He designs café racers, which involves taking a base bike, stripping it and adding new elements based on the rider’s budget and preference. The result is a minimalist, made-to-order motorcycle. He started creating café racers builds in 2015 and is currently on his 14th build. He admits that most customers opt for the low energy café racer as it makes a good commuter bike.
It’s a silent revolution but it’s a revolution all the same. A few issues still stand out. Will there be a change in government policy that will affect this? What will be the government’s response to the rising spate of motorcycle accidents? How will safety measures be enforced? Will transport companies like Uber bring high-powered motorcycles into their service listing? In the past, the technology company has combated local problems with maverick solutions like cash payments in Nairobi and rickshaws in India.
For now, the biker culture in Lagos seems like it is here to stay. A permanent solution to Lagos’ traffic menace would stand the Governor in good stead as the election year approaches.
Tafa, who is the author of ‘Sixty Percent of a True Story,’ a biker, café racer enthusiast and blogger lives in Lagos
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