February 26, 2023
February 26, 2023
Mogadishu initially expanded in a grid pattern around the port area in the early 20th century but was later ‘master-planned’ by the Italians during their colonial rule. Although the population had been growing slowly since the beginning of the 20th century, the city witnessed considerable population and urbanization growth after independence and this reached its peak during military rule. The military regime, particularly in its first six years (1969-1975), invested heavily in public services and infrastructure, such as roads and public transport, and built many buses stops and stations across the city.
However, following the overthrow of the military government in 1991 and the ensuing civil war that ravaged the nation, Mogadishu became the scene of numerous conflicts, including the struggle for control between the warlords (up until the late 1990s; the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and the warlords in 2006; the ICU and the Ethiopian troops backed by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces in 2006-2009, and most recently between al-Shabaab and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) forces until the group was driven out from the city in late 2011. Roads and other forms of transportation systems were severely damaged during these periods of fighting, as along with other basic public infrastructures.
After the 2011 famine that hit the country and the receipt of humanitarian assistance from Turkey, these Turkish-led projects extended into other areas, such as education and road-building. Most of the streets were potholed and badly damaged due to the two-decade-long fighting that the city had experienced. On top of the Turkish construction of 23 kilometers of important smooth tarmac roads in Mogadishu, many other critical thoroughfares, have been built and/or rehabilitated since, primarily funded by local communities and business people. These have included the crucial 30 Street, which connects key districts and business markets.
With the visible improvement in the transportation infrastructure and roads, urban mobility has eased to a certain extent and the movements of urban residents and traffic have improved in comparison to previous years. However, due to the partial or complete closure of many of the newly built and/or rehabilitated roads and other compounding problems, Mogadishu residents are paying a high price to make simple movements within the city. The problem seems unlikely to be solved soon.
Amid these profound challenges and obvious growing complaints of the citizens, Somali Public Agenda (SPA) held a forum on Thursday, November 17, 2022, to discuss the challenges surrounding urban mobility in Mogadishu and their effects on people and traffic flow. In the forum, participants discussed the causes and consequences of these challenges and put forward key policy recommendations that could help Benadir Regional Administration (BRA) and policymakers deal with these issues. The participants represented a wide range of stakeholders including urban planners and practitioners, businesspeople, students, teachers, car owners, lawyers, and security analysts.
Causes of Urban Mobility Challenges
The causes of the mobility challenges in Mogadishu include, among other factors, insecurity and recurring explosions in the city, as well as decrepit and poor transportation infrastructure.
(In)security: Some of the newly rehabilitated and newly constructed roads have been partially or completely closed due to the city’s deteriorating security situation, while others use pass access that is limited to government personnel including politicians, security forces, and civil servants. As a result, this can paralyze public transportation and has created new challenges since most of Mogadishu’s residents have no access to these roads. Additionally, given the already inadequate emergency services, the few available firefighter trucks and ambulances struggle to respond quickly during emergencies such as fire breakouts and explosions, which frequently occur.
Given the al-Shabaab’s target of government buildings, there are some checkpoints that vehicles can only access if the drivers carry government ID cards. The driver has to park the car, walk several meters and show the ID card to the soldier to be allowed to use the road. At times, only those carrying ID cards from top government offices such as the Presidency and the Office of the Prime Minister as well as senior government officials alone can access some of these roads. This has limited the mobility of people in Mogadishu. It has also contributed to the increasing value and price of lands and rent rates in these protected zones. On the other hand, these checkpoints have reduced vehicle-borne suicide attacks on government institutions inside these protected locations in Mogadishu.
Consequently, people are left with few options when moving to different parts of the city, and they mostly crowd on the few available roads that run though certain densely populated districts. The overcrowding itself on some of these roads causes security challenges, as intersections and crowded places are vulnerable to the vehicle-borne explosive devices (VBIED) attacks that the city is frequently affected by. Traffic police are often not stationed at some of these busy junctions. The deadly VBIED explosions in the Zoobe intersection on October 14, 2017, and October 30, 2022 are prime examples, both of which occured while the intersection was crowded and claimed many hundreds of lives.
Poor Transportation Infrastructure: Mogadishu’s poor transportation infrastructure is a significant contributor to the complex challenges of urban mobility. The city barely received any transportation infrastructure upgrades in the two decades following 1991, when the central government collapsed, while losing much of what it had before. However, many roads have been rehabilitated since 2014, though new ones have yet to be built. Even the Turkish constructed tarmac roads lack drainage systems and rains often cause floods that limit the mobility of people and vehicles within Mogadishu.
Additionally, the current transportation infrastructure, which was built in the 20th century, is debilitated. The population of the city was less than half of the current population at that time, and we have more cars on the road than ever due to population growth and the improving income of many people. Importantly, there are no age limits for vehicles using roads in Mogadishu or limits on the number of vehicles that can use roads. Moreover, the local authority does not effectively manage the rickshaws (locally known as bajaaj) that are increasingly common on Mogadishu roads. In other cities in Somalia, there are places where bajaaj licenses are color coded in order to regulate their number operating on the streets on particular days.
Several factors contribute to the challenges of human and traffic mobility in Mogadishu. These include, inter alia, a lack of services and entertainment centers in the peripheral districts; a lack of traffic rules and regulations, and youth unemployment.
Limited Social Services in the Peripheral Districts: Although Mogadishu has 17 districts, most of the institutions and centers that provide social services, both public and private, are concentrated in the core and semi-peripheral districts. The Benadir Regional Administration (BRA), the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) institutions, private universities, banks, and hospitals are mainly located in these areas. Using the same roads to get in, thousands of people looking for public and private social services come to the center of the city daily.
Additionally, as the city is recovering from years of devastating civil war, business people are heavily investing in the hospitality industry such as restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, and entertainment centers in the city center. Subsequently, people find it hard to get into the center areas due to the limited number of publicly accessible roads that the public has access to. Also, public and private vehicles overwhelm the few accessible roads and cause traffic jams that cost people many hours.
Unemployment: A respondent, who participated in the forum, argued that the high unemployment rate in the city is indirectly causing mobility problems in Mogadishu. He further asserted that the widespread unemployment among the youth in the city compelled many young people to drive three-wheeled rickshaws to make a living, as it became the most popular mode of transportation in the city. The auto rickshaws started operating in Mogadishu about a decade ago, and in 2020, a staggering 35,000 were estimated to be operating in the city. Around a quarter of the drivers are believed to be university graduates.
Even though rickshaws have improved the city’s transportation system and employed many young people, its entry into the market has created new challenges and exacerbated Mogadishu’s already poor urban mobility. They operate like taxis, and given the increasing population and lack of other quick transport alternatives, demand for their service keeps growing. Hence, the bajaaj flood the streets and create avoidable traffic jams, as some bajaaj drivers have no driving licenses and the use of illicit drugs is thought to be common among some, particularly at night (even though the government in mid 2022 imposed movement restrictions on them after midnight these have yet to be lifted).
Lack of Public Transport Buses: Public bus services are one of the most crucial and common modes of public transportation around the world. The city used to have functional public bus services before the civil war broke out in 1991. However, after the devastating conflict the public bus services gradually disappeared and were replaced by mini-busses that have a maximum capacity of 18 people.
Nonetheless, the minibusses are also gradually disappearing from the streets, and the widely used bajaaj has become the dominant public transport mode in the city. The maximum capacity of the bajaaj is between 3 and 4. As a result of the bajaaj’s limited capacity, the public transportation sector required many bajaajs, while many people purchased personal cars, exacerbating the situation because most roads in the city cannot accommodate such a burden.
Lack of Traffic Rules: Traffic rules play a significant role in the smooth movement of people and traffic in big cities. Most roads in Mogadishu neither have traffic rules nor functioning and effective traffic police. The city is in dire need of traffic lights as well as regulations and a functioning police force that will enforce them. Some roads have basic signage, such as circular intersections and speed limits, but these are rarely followed. Some drivers use the wrong side of the road under the watch of the police but with no consequences.
This all creates chaos and confusion and aggravates the root causes of the urban mobility challenges. Importantly, government vehicles – particularly security forces – are often those that violate traffic rules the most. They shoot firearms to open up spaces for their vehicles fearing that they could be a potential target for al-Shabaab. They also at times kill bajaaj drivers and innocent people in busy junctions. This has led to several bajaaj drivers’ demonstrations against government security forces.
Moreover, the lack of public and private parking lots contributes to the problem. Some people park their cars in the streets and on the pavement, which causes traffic congestion and roadblocks. Most roads are so narrow that they can only be used by a few cars at a time.
This commentary and the forum were supported by International Media Support (IMS).