Why batteries won’t trump rails

Growth in electric vehicles is promising to change public transportation, freeing African cities from smoke-belching buses. Honk-honk to celebrate!

  • But the battle for cleaner air won’t be won with battery-powered vehicles alone. 

The crux: Congestion and pollution cannot be banished without also resorting to a much older technology: Rails. 

The news: Recent investments in rail systems in African cities are having a profound impact. 

  • Lagos metro offers dramatically reduced journey times.

More & more: After decades of minimal focus on rail infrastructure, investment is growing. 

  • The Dakar electric BRT network is set to be in operation in the middle of this year.

  • Work on the $1.5 billion Ivory Coast Metro Project will also be completed in 2024.

Horses for courses: A variety of technologies are being used to fit different urban needs.

  • The mix of options include trams, metros, monorails and suburban networks.

The benefits: Urban rail reduces greenhouse gas emissions per passenger by up to 7 times compared to cars. It also impacts landscapes less than roads. However, it’s expensive.

An alternative: Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRTs) cost less, and while not as effective as rail they still outperform single vehicles. 

  • BRTs run omnibuses on separate lanes of regular roads. 

  • Diesel-powered BRT emissions are more than double those of a tram. Even a fully electric BRT has 17% higher lifetime emissions.

  • In countries with a carbon-intensive energy mix, a tram's carbon footprint over 30 years is still lower than that of a BRT system. 

Why it matters: Air pollution is a major cause of death in Africa, and getting worse. 

  • Private vehicle ownership climbed from under 50 per 1,000 people at the start of the century to over 200 per 1,000 by 2015.

The future: Transportation challenges will further intensify in the coming years. 

  • By 2050, urban populations are expected to soar from 600 million to over 1.3 billion.

  • Transport contributes 25% to African energy-related emissions (2% below the global average).

Greatest need: Kinshasa is the largest African city not to have urban rail transport. 

  • Among African cities lacking light-rail that also have terrible traffic, Nairobi ranks top.

The map: North and South Africa are the rail pioneers. Cairo has had a metro since 1987. 

  • East Africa is lagging but Addis Ababa opened a light rail line in 2015.

  • In Central Africa, Douala and Yaoundé are developing tram networks.

Nigerian dichotomy: While the new Lagos rail line is groundbreaking, its dysfunctional $823-million counterpart in Abuja has been labelled 'Nigeria’s Train to Nowhere'.

Key lessons: Pay attention to best-in-class strategic planning and local urban dynamics. 

  • Rail networks are highly complex. Reductions in congestion and pollution come at a price. But it’s worth paying.